While a lot of fans will be looking at Michigan’s offense, it’s been the defense carrying the team to most of their 20 wins in the past two seasons. Now, that engine needs to get refueled - new players, new challenges, and new opportunities for 2017.
Here’s my guess as to who will be leading that movement. Enjoy.
DL Rashan Gary (6’5” 287) So.
Speaking of phenoms with quiet first years, Rashan started the year further into the background than many had hoped. But he kept working at it throughout the season, and by season’s end he showed enough to realistically expect a very good performance in 2017. Strength-wise, he’s absolutely phenomenal.
It did look like Gary bulked up during the season, as well; when he first got here, he looked like the high school prospect I remember scouting, but by November, he was a legit college defensive tackle who was still playing strongside defensive end. Next year, it seems like more of the same will be in store: with Mo Hurst and Bryan Mone returning to man the inside spots, Gary is far and away our best option to replace Chris Wormley (a legit defensive tackle himself) at left-side end.
Even though his game is perfectly tailored to that of a three-technique tackle, Rashan does have enough speed to be successful - even at pass rushing - on the outside. He’ll be able to replace Maurice Hurst, in all likelihood, in 2018, before declaring for the 2019 NFL Draft.
Still, it will be a little weird that Michigan’s best run-stopping lineman is going to be out at strongside end and not the interior. Good luck running to that side, anyway.
DT Michael Dwumfour (6’2”, 300) So.
Dwumfour is something of a forgotten man on this defense. He was a true freshman in 2016, best known for being a friend and teammate of Kareem Walker, who got some reserve playing time against Hawaii and then none after.
Still, he’s a legitimate prospect at one of Michigan’s most important positions: nose tackle. Even though he looked a little green against Hawaii, I expect him to back up Bryan Mone next year and be more than solid in his reserve snaps. Michigan’s reserve defensive linemen can definitely be impact players - look no further than Mo Hurst or Mone last year - and I think Dwumfour takes that baton.
After all, as I said, he’s a legit prospect in his own right: a perfect lower body for stopping the run and clogging the middle, explosive and pliable, and he even bows after sacking the quarterback. Not many guys are perfectly built to be an NFL nose tackle but athletic enough to rush the passer as much as Dwumfour can. I’m looking forward to fans hearing his name a lot more often in the future.
LB Devin Bush, Jr. (5’11”, 232) So.
From the opening game of his college career, Devin Bush looked like he fit right in. He’s a different kind of linebacker than the Brennen Beyers and Desmond Morgans of old; he’s shorter, athletic, good in space and able to blitz effectively.
He currently has the inside track in a slightly confusing race at linebacker; there are a lot of names who might make the field next year, and we’re not sure how (or if) Don Brown replaces Jabrill Peppers. But Bush is a safe bet to start regardless of other personnel options, and he’ll have the talent and experience to make some big plays out there - and turn our defense into a much faster unit as a whole.
FS Tyree Kinnel (5’11”, 206) Jr.
Quietly, Tyree Kinnel moved from an early-season play-maker on special teams to a late-season stud at free safety. He was still a backup behind Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas, but he showed a lot of speed and the ability to diagnose plays very quickly.
In fact, on plays when a team would run in his direction, he basically turned into a de facto strong safety with how quickly he got into the flat and tackled the ball carrier. Michigan fans are going to love this guy’s range and how quickly he makes plays, and they’ll get to see a lot more of him as he terrorizes offenses over the next two seasons.
CB Benjamin St-Juste (6’3”, 188) Fr.
It’s going to be a complete rebuild in the secondary next year. At corner, at least, it’s hard to be too concerned - depth, talent, and particularly athleticism are about to get a big boost thanks to the young guys filtering into the system.
The ones with the most playing time right now are Brandon Watson and Lavert Hill. David Long got a little bit of playing time in 2016, and his athleticism is a big advantage in what will be a tremendous battle for playing time next year. And, there are a couple freshman phenoms coming in - speedster and native Detroiter Ambry Thomas, and lanky and technique-driven Benjamin St-Juste.
I’m going to bet on St-Juste, albeit tentatively. He’s a tremendous competitor, a guy who’s built his game on practice and repetition, and a quick-twitch athlete who can mirror receivers and keep the ball out of their hands. His speed is pretty darn amazing, too - although he isn’t the most physical tackler, and that could keep him off the field.