As Michigan's season spiraled out of control last year, there was rightful focus on an offense that was struggling to do much of anything. Brady Hoke lost his job, and Jim Harbaugh — the offensive guru that he is — is now running the show in Ann Arbor.
But as poor as that offense was, it took focus away from what was actually one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. It was one of the best defenses in the country.
Don't believe that a five-win team could boast one of America's best defenses? Michigan ranked seventh in the FBS in total defense, allowing opponents to amass just 311.3 total yards of offense per game. That was better than Michigan State, better than Alabama, better than national champion Ohio State. Only Penn State and Wisconsin had better numbers among Big Ten teams. No team that made one of the New Year's Six bowl games ranked higher in that stat category than Michigan.
If there's something that provides hope that Harbaugh's first year is going to be much different than Hoke's last, that's it.
But while the defense would like to keep those 2014 numbers the same, the influx of energy from the new coaching staff is breeding some excitement, too.
"Enthusiasm, just like coach Harbaugh. It's crazy, everyone around us from the D-coordinator to the D-line coach, just enthusiasm all over the place," defensive end Chris Wormley said last week during the team's media day. "It's what we need, I think it's what we all wanted all along is just someone that puts a fire under us and gets us going."
Though the most productive member of last year's defense is now gone — the Green Bay Packers made Jake Ryan a fourth-round draft pick in the spring — the Wolverines' linebacking unit is still in good hands. Joe Bolden wasn't far off Ryan's team-leading 112 tackles, making 102 stops of his own. And though he made more headlines for planting a stake in the turf at Michigan State, he figures to give Michigan a second straight season of a dominant linebacker.
The secondary will demand some attention, too, with Jabrill Peppers getting to play a full season and Jarrod Wilson and Jourdan Lewis back after combining for 89 tackles a season ago.
“Our defense, we’ve got a lot of guys who do what they do and do it well, with an attitude and to the best of their ability,” Peppers said. “When you've got a group of guys who are hungry, aggressive and intense, things definitely look on the up and up.
“We have a surplus amount of potential, I don’t even know where to begin. It’s competition at every position. We have a great secondary that is complemented very well by a great linebacking crew and a great D-line. We need the big guys up front to get that push, get that pressure to make our job a lot easier. We make their job a lot easier, as well.”
Harbaugh's new defensive coordinator is a good one, too. D.J. Durkin comes over from Florida, where in two seasons as defensive coordinator there, the Gators were eighth and 15th in the country in total defense, despite their underwhelming win totals.
While offense still remains a mystery with position battles at the quarterback and running back positions, if the defense can do what it did last season, that will go a long way toward getting Michigan back to the postseason in Harbaugh's first year at the helm.