Across The Field: Q&A with Michigan Beat Writer Isaiah Hole on What Greg Mattison, Al Washington Will Bring to Ohio State

By Dan Hope on January 10, 2019 at 10:10 am
Greg Mattison and Al Washington
Mattison photo: Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports, Washington photo: Isaiah Hole/Wolverines Wire

As Ryan Day revamps Ohio State's coaching staff entering his first season as head coach, Eleven Warriors is checking in with media members who covered the Buckeyes' new assistant coaches to get their insight on what those coaches could bring to Columbus.

Ohio State poached not one, but two defensive assistant coaches from Michigan this week, hiring Wolverines defensive line coach Greg Mattison as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Al Washington to fill the same role for the Buckeyes.

We caught up with Wolverines Wire publisher Isaiah Hole, who broke the news on Monday that Mattison would be leaving Michigan for Ohio State, to get his insight on both coaches, why they chose to leave Michigan, what they could bring to the Buckeyes both on the field and on the recruiting trail and how the Wolverines could move forward without them.

Q: After losing two of its assistant coaches to Ohio State in a two-day span, what is the vibe like right now around Michigan and its fanbase?

Hole: It’s certainly not great, but it wasn’t bound to be after how the game on Nov. 24 and the subsequent Peach Bowl went. There seems to be this ‘sky is falling’ mentality, which is understandable given how Michigan lost both games. But, at the same time, the Wolverines were 10-3 and got through the three games in the middle of the schedule that few (myself included) gave them a chance to emerge from unscathed.

That said, there’s a mixture of feelings regarding each coach that departed. With Mattison, naturally, a lot of fans have turned on him, which makes sense given how much he was widely regarded as a proverbial ‘Michigan Man’ — a phrase he used in nearly every media availability. There’s been an attempt by a large swath of the fanbase to discredit and decry what he accomplished in Ann Arbor, mostly from his tenure as defensive coordinator.

However, it was when he arrived that Michigan stopped the defensive hemorrhaging, given how terrible the Wolverines were defensively under former head coach Rich Rodriquez and then-defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. He didn’t make Michigan a top defense compared to where the Wolverines have been in the past four years under Jim Harbaugh, but they went from being bottom-dwellers to serviceable, if not solid. The reaction also comes in large part from fans not seeing this coming – and, honestly, I didn’t either. Out of all of Michigan’s staff members, Mattison was probably the least likely candidate to end up in Columbus.

On the other hand, while there has been similar hand-wringing about Al Washington, that was certainly more understandable, if not expected. Son of a former prolific Buckeye who grew up in Columbus. Last media availability we had with him, he spoke about his affinity for Ohio State, having been near the program throughout the entirety of his formative years. I can say with confidence that Michigan wasn’t inclined to let him walk away as much as it was willing to do so with Mattison. Still, given his history, his departure has been met with a lot less fervor.

Q: You were the first to break the news that Greg Mattison would be leaving Michigan for Ohio State. Why do you think he decided to leave the Wolverines for the Buckeyes after eight years in Ann Arbor?

Hole: I would say it has entirely to do with the added responsibility of being a defensive coordinator mixed with the upgrade in pay. When Jim Harbaugh arrived in late 2014, I was honestly surprised that Mattison readily accepted a decreased role as a simple position coach, overseeing the defensive line, given what he was both at Michigan and at other stops. Some will draw it up as an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ type of deal, but I think at his age, he just wanted one last shot to oversee a defense at a big time program. And it doesn’t get much bigger than Ohio State.

Q: How would you evaluate Mattison's tenure at Michigan, both in his previous role as a defensive coordinator and in his most recent role as a defensive line coach?

Hole: From a defensive coordinator standpoint, he did quite well, despite what some will tell you. He wasn’t as solid as either of his replacements in D.J. Durkin or Don Brown, but he took the 110th-rated defense and made that same squad 17th overall in just one year. That’s a Herculean effort. Subsequently, Michigan was 13th, 41st and 7th in his next three years, so Mattison is certainly solid from a DC standpoint.

Where he really shined – and what Michigan really needed at the time – was a reboot in fundamentals. What he inherited was a group of players that were certainly talented (look at current NFL players such as Jake Ryan or Frank Clark) but were either put in bad positions or didn’t have the technique necessary to compete at a high level. Mattison changed that nearly overnight. I’d argue that Mattison is pretty much the only reason why Michigan had any kind of success during the Brady Hoke years after 2011, as the offensive staff floundered wildly at taking advantage of the bevy of playmakers at their disposal, mixed with incompetence at developing a cohesive unit along the offensive line.

But Mattison really shined when allowed to focus on the defensive front. This year didn’t go as well from that standpoint, as there’s still emerging talent in the interior. But Michigan had one of the best defensive lines in the country when he oversaw the unit. And even this year, it was solid in all but two games – and injuries to Chase Winovich in the final regular season game and the departure of Rashan Gary before the bowl game certainly contributed to the struggles in both contests.

Moreso along the defensive line than the defense as a whole, Mattison is excellent at getting the most out of his players. He put all six of his NFL-eligible starters from 2015-17 in the league, and while Matt Godin hasn’t seen time due to injury, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, Maurice Hurst and Ryan Glasgow have all found roles at the next level. Rashan Gary will be a first-round pick barring something unexpected and Chase Winovich — an absolute afterthought on the roster in 2015 — developed into perhaps the team’s best or second-best player overall. That’s due, in large part, to Mattison’s tutelage.

Chase Winovich
Chase Winovich was among the Michigan defensive linemen who emerged as stars while being coached by Greg Mattison. Rick Osentoski – USA TODAY Sports

Q: As co-defensive coordinator, Mattison should have a big role in designing the Buckeyes' defensive scheme and play calling. Based on his work at Michigan, what principles would you expect him to bring to Ohio State's defense?

Hole: Really, it starts with technique and fundamentals, and given how the back seven for Ohio State struggled in that area in 2018, expect that to be shored up quickly in 2019. Mattison is a master at diagnosing where players are faltering and turning that around. That’s why Michigan’s defense rebounded so quickly once he took over in 2011, and why it continued even after he accepted the demotion. I would anticipate a four-man front, but if he brings anything from the Don Brown school of defense, we could see a lot more pressure situations and mixed front schemes compared to what we saw in Ann Arbor from 2011-14.

Q: Mattison appears to have a strong reputation as a recruiter, leading the way in recruiting Tim Tebow at Florida and Rashan Gary and Jabrill Peppers at Michigan. Overall, how would you evaluate his performance on the recruiting trail?

Hole: He isn’t quite as voracious as he once was, but he was still one of the Wolverines’ best in that regard. He is a no-nonsense type of recruiter whose personality resonates with players and parents, alike. He certainly wasn’t Michigan’s top recruiter in his tenure in Ann Arbor, but was he top five? Top three? Almost definitely.

Q: Al Washington comes to Ohio State with perhaps even more buzz surrounding his ability to recruit. How big was his impact on recruiting in his year on the Michigan staff, and what do you think makes him successful in that regard?

Hole: I would say it was big, but ultimately, Washington wasn’t responsible for any of Michigan’s top signees once pen hit the paper. His biggest task was trying to lure Zach Harrison to Ann Arbor — which he was very nearly successful at. From what I had heard throughout, Michigan was Harrison’s preference all along, but the lure to Ohio State was too strong with his family, especially after Urban Meyer left. Credit Al Washington (and Greg Mattison) with that being the case, because it’s extremely rare that someone who grew up in the shadow of The Horseshoe would consider Michigan so strongly without having Michigan ties — or devoid of having an Ohio State offer.

Washington is certainly an up-and-comer, and I can say with great confidence that Michigan didn’t want to lose him for that reason. And that’s aside from the fact that he wasn’t the one who brought players like Daxton Hill, Zach Charbonnet or Mazi Smith to Ann Arbor.

Q: On the field, how would you describe Washington as a coach? What qualities stand out about him, and how successful would you say his season coaching Michigan's linebackers was?

Hole: That’s a hard one to answer for multiple reasons. Being on the sideline, I could never see his demeanor, because he coached from the box. He also inherited a gem in Devin Bush Jr., who will go down as one of the best linebackers in Michigan history. Also, Don Brown primarily oversees the linebackers. 

What I can say is two-fold: we saw former low-three star Devin Gil play serviceably at the WILL position, which was a bonus, given how rarely a lower-rated recruit breaks the two-deep, let alone starts. Behind him, Josh Ross – who will likely be Michigan’s MIKE next year – has shown flashes and ability. VIPER Khaleke Hudson somewhat disappeared this season compared to last. Was that teams scheming away from him or Hudson not being utilized in the same way? I’m not sure.

Q: How do you think Michigan will move forward in replacing Mattison and Washington, and do you think this will serve as an extra motivator for the Wolverines going into next year's rivalry game?

Hole: For the linebackers coach role, I’m sure that Michigan will either put Chris Partridge back at the position or find another staunch recruiter to fill the role. Given Don Brown’s responsibility there – assuming he doesn’t leave for Temple, or another head coaching job – Michigan doesn’t require a bona fide linebackers coach, in terms of having a game-changing teacher at the position.

With Mattison, that’s a little more unclear. Michigan’s defense is fully predicated at getting pressure up front. If they can’t, well, the defense falls apart. We saw that in Columbus first-hand. As far as who they target, I haven’t heard any names yet, and I’m sure they’re still in evaluation mode there.

As far as motivation is concerned, it will absolutely play a factor. Ear to the ground with sources close to the players, they feel betrayed — much more by the Mattison ordeal than with Washington. And I can’t blame them. With all the talk of loyalty and how Ohio State is the enemy, I’ve heard that they’re already feeling like fuel has been added to the flames on the defensive front.

While players like Mike Dwumfour have taken to social media to say ‘business is business,’ it seems like behind closed doors, they aren’t as nonchalant about Mattison defecting to Michigan’s archenemy as they would have you believe. If put into a position to succeed next year, I wouldn’t expect anything but the best game from those players who feel abandoned here. But, of course, that’s a believe it when I see it situation.

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