A season ago, Michigan’s defense established itself as one of the country’s best. This spring, its main focus is filling the gaps of departing players who brought it to such heights.
Highlighted by a three-game stretch against then-No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 24 Michigan State and No. 14 Penn State, which saw the Wolverines give up just 27 total points, defensive coordinator Don Brown’s group earned a reputation of dominance. Michigan surrendered just 275.2 yards per game in 2018 — the second-fewest in the country, despite giving up a total of 994 in its final two games.
This spring, a number of contributors from the Wolverines’ intimidating 2018 defense will hear their names called during the NFL Draft. As some of last season’s standouts make a late push to improve their draft stock ahead of next month, junior defensive back Josh Metellus described a “next man up” mentality in Ann Arbor.
“It’s college football,” Metellus said of the NFL-bound talent. “It’s always next man up no matter what happens. Losing big guys like Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, David Long, that’s the game of football. We have Coach Harbaugh, who does a great job recruiting, bringing in guys to step up and getting ready for a role.”
One new face on the defensive side of the ball is sophomore Ben Mason, who saw most of his snaps as a fullback in Harbaugh’s offense last season. With first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis in the fold, the Wolverines’ new pro-spread offense won’t feature a fullback. As a result, Mason has spent the spring taking some reps at tight end and even on the other side of the ball, primarily on the defensive line.
So far, players and coaches alike have praised Mason’s effort and energy. At 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, there’s a clear desire to weaponize his combination of stature and athleticism wherever possible.
“Really excited that the coaches let us have him (on defense), to some degree,” Brown said. “I would say that it would be against my better judgement that this guy could play on the defensive line, inside. Freak of nature. Comes off the ball exceptionally well. We could play him inside, defensive end, he could play that open spot. There’s a lot less learning there. He likes it, he’s a tough guy and he can run.”
Added sophomore defensive lineman Kwity Paye: “Ben Mason’s a beast. I think he’s playing inside right now. But Ben Mason coming off the ball, he comes off with a head full of steam, taking guys on. Ben Mason, he’s one of those guys you put somewhere and he’s gonna give 110-percent. That’s what I like about Ben, he goes hard every single day. Ben’s crazy, man. Every time he comes off the ball, he’s screaming. He gives us that energy that we need.”
Beyond the defensive line, one of Michigan’s biggest holes to fill is linebacker. Though Brown admitted the Wolverines will struggle to find a player who can replicate Devin Bush’s elite sideline-to-sideline speed, he did point out the strong impression that sophomore linebacker Josh Ross has made so far this spring.
“(Ross) will knock the paint off the top of your helmet,” Brown said. “You don’t want to get into a physical confrontation with this guy. I don’t care what he weighs — maybe 225 (pounds) — I’m really excited with not only his play and command, but now that we’ve had all winter to get him ready for this role.”
To Brown’s pleasure, sophomore defensive back Ambry Thomas has saved Michigan’s secondary from falling behind the eight ball despite the loss of David Long. Elsewhere, Brown cited defensive backs among the likes of freshman Vincent Gray, sophomore Brad Hawkins and sophomore J’Marick Woods as players who have impressed over the first two weeks of spring practices.
When push comes to shove, the fact that Brown’s system has become a staple in the program means that replacing NFL-bound talent is a systemic matter. Taking many of the moving parts out of the equation eases the personnel transition.
“The bottom line is that our guys are in the fourth year of a similar defensive system,” Brown said. “Obviously, we’ve made some changes, but the nuts and bolts part of it is intact. They can just keep going, get better, get faster, understand the playbook better and now there’s an older group of guys that sit above them who can help them.”
With a successful scheme firmly in place, it all boils down to whether the “next man up” can contribute.