After yet another dominant defensive showing a season ago, the Michigan football team lost more than a few program veterans to April’s NFL Draft and graduation. With last season’s core now out the door, the Wolverines will showcase a reloaded defense during Saturday’s season opener against Middle Tennessee State.
For as much attention as the revolutionized offense is getting, defensive coordinator Don Brown’s unit could look just as different this weekend. A number of young players have the opportunity to carve out regular roles in 2019, setting up a crossroads of sorts considering Michigan brings back a handful of complements to last season’s star power.
With less than a week until kickoff, The Wolverine Lounge breaks down everything you need to know about Michigan’s defense:
Defensive line: New defensive line coach Shaun Nua has no shortage of talent at his disposal in his first season with the Wolverines. Last week, a source told The Wolverine Lounge that the starting defensive line is shaping up to include Aidan Hutchinson, Carlo Kemp, Michael Dwumfour and Kwity Paye. After tearing his plantar fascia against Maryland last year, Dwumfour enters 2019 fully healthy. At 6-foot-6, 278 lbs, Hutchinson — who trained at the TB12 facility in Boston over the summer — has the potential to be a force coming off the edge, while Paye offers similar size and more experience on the opposite end. Kemp, who was named a team captain last week, has played in each of Michigan’s 26 games over the last two seasons.
Outside of the tentative front four, Central Michigan graduate transfer Mike Danna offers as much upside as anyone. He turned in a monstrous senior season at CMU a year ago, tallying 42 defensive stops — 14 more than the next-highest defensive lineman in the Mid-American Conference. When opponents tried throwing on the Chippewas, his 27% pass rush win rate ranked No. 1 amongst returning edge rushers, per Pro Football Focus. At Monday’s media availability, Hutchinson called Danna a “big factor” who has “added a lot of depth.”
Beyond Danna, a source said five-star freshman Chris Hinton has made a “huge impression early” and “(Donovan) Jeter’s hype is real,” citing his improved size, technique and effort.
Linebackers: Despite losing a cornerstone like Devin Bush to the NFL, Michigan’s linebacking corps is in good shape entering this season. Khaleke Hudson is one of the Big Ten’s hardest hitters, while Josh Uche established himself as a dominant pass rusher in 2018. According to a source, “Uche (is) moving around and playing fast wherever he lines up. He’s a big hitter and loves contact (the) same as Hudson.” Josh Ross and Devin Gil are another two starting-caliber options, while Cam McGrone and Jordan Glasgow also appear set to see the field.
When it comes to leadership, the linebackers have the chance to take the defense by its horns. Hudson was recently named a team captain, while Gil brings a wealth of experience as a senior and Ross has taken the initiative of being more vocal. According to Pro Football Focus, Ross recorded 24 defensive stops last season while producing a 52.6 passer rating allowed and 78.9 run-defense grade. A stellar season as just a sophomore, mind you. If his trajectory continues, he’ll emerge as one of the conference’s most versatile, talented linebackers.
Cornerbacks: Arguably Michigan’s thinnest position this season, the cornerback group is a concern to begin the season. The unit is shaky at best outside of All-American Lavert Hill, who allowed the fewest yards per cover snap in the Big Ten last season. The uncertainty behind Hill only intensifies the negative impact of Ambry Thomas’ battle against colitis.
While it’s encouraging that Thomas has already returned to position meetings while participating in portions of practice, no decision has been made on his status for Saturday’s opener. Vincent Gray will assume the second cornerback position in his absence, with Jaylen Kelly-Powell in the mix for the two-deep.
Safeties: After leading the Big Ten with a passer rating allowed of just 34.3 last season, Josh Metellus chose to return for his senior year. Brown and Chris Partridge praised his leadership during the spring media availabilities, and a source echoed that sentiment during fall camp, mentioning that Metellus is even telling players where to line up before snaps. The same source noted that Brad Hawkins’ “stock is on the rise,” and he appears ready to open the season as the starting free safety. J’Marick Woods will back up Metellus at strong safety in the opener.
Of course, fans will want to see freshman phenom Daxton Hill on the field as early as possible. The Oklahoma native was the top-ranked safety in the 2019 class and the No. 14 overall player, according to the 247 Sports Composite rankings. During Monday’s press conference, Harbaugh called Hill “as advertised,” noting that he’ll work in at safety.