Questions for the Michigan Wolverines Defense

The 2021 Michigan defense was a historic unit in the history of the program because it featured the rare Heisman defensive finalist and a contemporary knack for the big game.

Think of the back-to-back turnovers forced against Rutgers to end the game. Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez’s streak on the road. Getting up to hold Penn State after a stripsack to a three-and-off and a field goal gave the Nittany Lions a prime field position. Keeps a strong offense from the Ohio State Buckeye to 27 points. Force a stripsack touchdown to blow the lead against Michigan Sta…wait…never mind.

It’s been an unforgettable season, but some of the key architects won’t be returning to Ann Arbor for an encore.

Aidan Hutchinson set a sack record in a season with 14, including three in defeating archrival Ohio State en route to second-place Heisman Trophy. David Ojabo went from one recorded tackle all his Michigan career to 11 sacks, five forced fumbles and a second-round pick in the NFL Draft.

Not to mention the contributions of Swiss Army Knife safety Dax Hill, linebacker and defensive captain Josh Ross – who made one of the most important plays of the season as he instinctively shot the gap and stopped Ohio State from holding TreyVeon Henderson in a close third running back – safety Brad Hawkins (who delivered the aforementioned strip against Nebraska), cornerback Vincent Gray, defensive tackle Chris Hinton and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.

With seven starters and the departure of the defensive coordinator, Team 143 faces several questions at all levels that won’t be answered until the fall. Let’s address a few.

Defensive Line: How will the Wolverines replace Hutchinson and Ojabo?

(*Technically, Ojabo was a linebacker but mostly played as a traditional edge rusher.)

It’s impossible to replace what Hutchinson and Ojabo have brought in terms of character and leadership, so the better question is how is Michigan faring To attempt to replace 25 sacks, 28.5 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles?

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The next season is all about the production in the committee. While edge rusher Mike Morris and defensive tackle Mazi Smith are forecast to make stars, it’s far from a two-man job. Luckily, the Wolverines have some – albeit unproven – depth to shoulder the load.

returnees: Jaylen Harrell, Braiden McGregor, Taylor Upshaw, Kris Jenkins, Julius Welschof, TJ Guy

newcomers: Cam Goode, Derrick Moore, and Mason Graham

They will all be fighting for significant playing time and a chance to become Michigan’s next standouts.

While other positional battles get more range, pass rushing combat is a wide open war that will do so hopeful create a tide high enough to lift enough ships to see Hutch and Ojabo.

Linebacker: Where’s the Deep?

Everyone knows the two headliners — last year’s freshman All-American Junior Colson and Nikhai Hill-Green, who started six games last season and played in all 14. Most are familiar with veteran and versatile guard Michael Barrett, who is an X-factor against haste offenses and invaluable to special teams.

But where – especially if an injury strikes – will the Wolverines turn to for depth and support afterwards? With junior Kalel Mullings now splitting time between linebacker and running back, a triumvirate of candidates has formed behind Colson, Hill-Green and Barrett.

Senior Joey Velasquez is fresh from a baseball season in which he hit .277 and hit five homers for his second Big Ten championship title in six months. So far, Velasquez has mostly worked as a special teams player, playing in eight games last season, but the question remains what big step forward can he make this year?

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Redshirt freshman Tyler McLaurin came to Ann Arbor last year as a skinny (210-pound) prospect but competed like a duck in the Michigan strength program. Currently listed at 6ft 3 and just under 240 pounds, the high school scouting report highlighted his athleticism and instincts, and that’s a big reason he was named Defensive Scout Team Player of the Week twice last season. McLaurin is a name that fans will need to reacquaint themselves with before August.

New rookie Jimmy Rolder already has the physicality and explosiveness to play at the next level. For all baseball fans, Rolder clocked a 6.92 time in the 60-yard dash, which flies for a 6-foot-2, 220-pound teenager. While it’s the tallest projection of the three options, it might also have the tallest ceiling.

Secondary: How will the Wolverines replace Dax Hill’s versatility?

Hill was a cheat code last season. He could hide the mistakes of others and give the Wolverines the luxury of playing with three safeties without sacrificing his coverage skills. Without him, how will the secondary maintain his malleable advantage?

Rod Moore grew up before our eyes last season and should form one of the strongest safety duos in the Big Ten this year along with RJ Moten. But as man-to-man or nickel coverage players, both have room to grow and due to a change in position, the coaching staff seems to be on the same page.

Appearance: Wide receiver Mikey Sainristil, former Massachusetts state #1 recruit and standout two-way athlete in high school. Having excelled as a catch playmaker in the circus and a physical run-blocking receiver, he will now play on both sides of the ball.

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Sainristil showed potential in the spring game, flashing elite ball-tracking skills and active hands. Luckily, a trio (Keon Sabb, Zeke Berry, Will Johnson) of highly talented freshman defenders will provide the Wolverines with backend options.

Can Jesse Minter continue?

Despite losing seven starters, new defensive coordinator Jesse Minter inherits a great culture and talented group with a deceptive amount of experience. While mastering schematic designs and in-game customization is essential to Minter’s success, identifying and empowering key players is the first step in answering this question.

Minter doesn’t need players to fill the Gatorade cooler, walk the dog, or paint the back porch. But finding the guys who can play football properly will be key to Team 143 building on the foundation laid last season.

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