He likely didn’t notice, but Don Brown owes Clemson a debt of gratitude. Thanks to the Tigers’ 511 total yards in the national championship game, Alabama’s total defense average spiked from 244 yards per game allowed to 261.8 yards per game, which means Don Brown’s defense allowed the fewest yards per game in FBS for the second consecutive season.
After limiting opponents to a stunning 254.3 yards per game at Boston College in 2015 despite an 0-8 finish in ACC play, Brown left for Michigan and immediately led the nation’s stingiest defense yet again. His Wolverines surrendered 3,403 yards in 13 games — a 261.77 average that narrowly edged out the Crimson Tide.
The 2016 season marked Brown’s 40th in coaching, and he spent most of those four decades in anonymity. His start came as an assistant in the Vermont high school ranks in 1977, and he remained in the Northeast for the duration of his career. He has coordinated defenses at nine separate schools, with three successful head coaching stints sprinkled in between. Brown went 25-6 in three seasons at Plymouth State, a Division III school in New Hampshire, from 1993-95, 27-20 in four seasons at Northeastern from 2000-03, and then 43-19 at Massachusetts in 2004-08, including a trip to the FCS championship game in 2006.
That UMass stint allowed Brown to serve as defensive coordinator on forgettable teams at Maryland, Connecticut and Boston College before Harbaugh hired him away after his impressive 2015 season. (Brown loves Harbaugh, saying, “I really believe I work for the best head coach in the country. He gives me space to do my job and provides input when asked. He doesn’t just allow me to be creative, he expects it.” A new contract worth a reported $1.4 million a year over five years certainly doesn’t hurt.)
All this to say: Brown is a coach’s coach who’s in it not to get noticed, but for his love of the game. He shouts in his native Massachusetts accent not because he’s angry, but because he’s passionate about the material. “I may be 61,” he told a gathering of hundreds of coaches at the AFCA Convention in Nashville earlier this month, “but I can still come at you like a rattlesnake.”
Brown’s defenses are predicated around stopping the run. “You’ve got to stand for something,” he said. “You’ve got to be willing and able to say, ‘You’re not doing this.'”
That aggressive mentality extends to the passing game as well, where defensive backs are instructed to play press coverage without regard for risk. “We’re going to come up and deny any free access,” Brown said. “You might be a DB, look behind you and say, ‘Holy s—, there’s 90 yards behind me.'”
All 11 players are involved in each defensive scheme, and each is expected to contribute until the ball-carrier is brought to heel. “If you’re not running to the ball,” he said, “you’re a traitor. Might as well play for the other team.”
Brown sets a list of 17 goals for his defense to hit each season:
- WIN! — Michigan won 10 of its 13 games this fall, matching the program-high number of regular season victories since 2006. The Wolverines did fall to Florida State in a classic Orange Bowl, however. “Dalvin Cook ruined my New Year’s,” Brown joked.
- Create one more turnover than TDs against. — Michigan created 19 turnovers against 22 touchdowns allowed. The Wolverines produced one takeaway combined in losses to Iowa, Ohio State and Florida State.
- No more than 17 points allowed. — Michigan ranked second nationally at 14.1 points per game allowed. They were 8-1 when allowing 17 points or fewer and 2-2 when permitting more than 17. (They did hold Ohio State to 17 points in regulation before falling 30-27 in double overtime.)
- Intercept 1 of 15 passes. — Brown said he’s considering relaxing this standard to 17 to account for today’s offenses. Michigan intercepted 13 of 328 passes defended, good for one pick every 25.2 attempts, falling well short of Brown’s standard while still ranking second nationally in pass efficiency defense.
- No runs over 20 yards. — Michigan allowed 40 such rushes last season, tied for 40th nationally.
- No rushing TDs in Red Zone. — Michigan allowed six red zone rushing scores this season — three against Ohio State, and three in the other 12 games combined. The Wolverines were 8-1 when meeting this goal and 1-2 when not.
- Hold opponents to 3.3 yards per carry OR 99 yards rushing. — Michigan allowed 3.22 yards per carry on the season and 119.23 per game.
- No passes over 25 yards. — Michigan allowed 27 completions of 20 or more yards (CFBStats.com does not track completions of 25-plus yards specifically), which tied for third fewest in the nation.
- Stop 70% of 3rd/4th down plays. — Michigan’s third down defense (21.02%) was the best in college football over at least the past nine seasons. Opponents converted 40.74% of their 27 fourth down tries.
- Score or set up a score. — The Michigan defense scored three touchdowns last season.
- Third quarter SHUTOUT. — Brown places a high emphasis on his halftime adjustments beating his counterpart’s. Michigan accomplished this goal six times in 13 games.
- No Defensive penalties.
- 4 minus yardage plays per game (3 sacks). — The maize and blue ranked fourth with 3.54 sacks per game and placed second with 9.23 tackles for loss per game.
- Wreck the decision maker (7 or more knockdowns).
- Tackle with relentless passion. Get everyone to the ball. No traitors on this Defense.
- Hold opponent to 40% TD ratio in the Red Zone. — Michigan allowed touchdowns on an even 50 percent of opponent red zone trips. That number tied for 15th nationally.
- Create 36 sacks over the course of the regular season. — A bit redundant with Point 13, Michigan produced 44 sacks in its 12 regular season games.
Brown said most plays are won or lost before the ball is snapped, placing a high emphasis in deducting where an offensive player will move by his pre-snap stance and alignment. “See a little to see a lot,” he teaches. “We’re not on our heels. We’re on our toes and we’re attacking.”
In addition to the quote below, Brown is a subscriber to Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu’s thinking. He used a number of Sun Tzu quotes throughout his 50-minute presentation:
“When you feel most secure you become most vulnerable to surprise.”
“We cannot compete as individuals against others who are functioning as a team.”
“The first blow is as much as two.”
“When the strike of the hawk breaks the body of its prey, it is because of timing. The timing is similar to the release of the trigger.”
At the end of the day, Brown’s defense defaults to one strategy: attack.