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An Early Look At 2017 Michigan Football: Defensive Line Preview

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Personnel

Who’s definitely leaving? Ooh, boy. Michigan will be parting ways with all four of their starters, specifically Chris Wormley, Taco Charlton, Ryan Glasgow, and Matt Godin.

Who might, or might not, be around? Two big names are still unknowns in the recruiting field: Aubrey Solomon and Jay Tufele.

Who’s definitely going to be in town, then? In terms of upperclassmen, Michigan has Maurice Hurst, Bryan Mone, Chase Winovich, Lawrence Marshall, Reuben Jones, and Shelton Johnson on the team. A few second-year players to keep in mind are Rashan Gary, Michael Dwumfour, and Ron Johnson. And as far as 2017 commits go, Michigan is bringing in defensive tackles Deron Irving-Bey, James Hudson, Donovan Jeter, and Phillip Paea, and defensive ends Corey Malone-Hatcher and Luiji Vilain.

The Depth Chart

The presumed starters: From left to right, I’d expect Rashan Gary, Mo Hurst, Bryan Mone, and Chase Winovich to be your 2017 starters. This is a pretty safe bet, but Winovich will be getting some competition on that weakside from second-year man Ron Johnson and freshman Luiji Vilain.

Right on their heels: For second string, my guess is that Lawrence Marshall backs up Rashan Gary at SDE, a freshman defensive tackle (James Hudson would be my guess) backs up Maurice Hurst at three-tech, Michael Dwumfour backs up Bryan Mone at nose tackle, and Ron Johnson backs up Winovich on the weak side.

Michigan has a strong track record of recruiting and building up players under Greg Mattison’s stewardship. Four defensive linemen have been drafted since he got here, a number that should go up to seven by May.
Photo credit: Bryan Fuller, MGoBlog

Outside looking in: For third string, my best guess at the defensive end spots will be CMH on the strong side and Luiji Vilain on the weak side. At the tackle spots, you’ll be looking at another of the freshmen or a non-scholarship player, Garrett Miller or Salim Makki.

Miller did not look good in limited action this year, and he was presumably ahead of Makki for playing time. I do like Deron Irving-Bey, but he might need a year to really make an impact. I’d expect the majority of the freshmen to be able to sit and collect redshirts, unless there’s a terrible amount of injuries.

I should also mention Shelton Johnson for a second. I’m not really sure what’s going on with him; he’s entering his third year now, but he still hasn’t played yet, even on special teams, in his college career. He was suspended in August, though we haven’t learned much about why.

His weight is weird, too: he was listed at 212 pounds on the fall roster, which is less than when he first got to Ann Arbor. Hopefully he’s doing well from a health standpoint; hopefully he’s in good standing with the coaching staff. When he first committed, I thought of him as potentially being a Randy Gregory-type pass rusher. Needless to say, he has not been.

Four Questions

What happens with that weakside defensive end spot? After watching Taco Charlton rush the passer and shut down the run so effectively for us this year, it will be a little weird watching somebody 20 pounds lighter try to do the same. But, after watching Dalvin Cook in the Orange Bowl, it’s hard to deny that adding just a little more speed could be a positive thing for this defense.

Funnily enough, Chase Winovich is in a similar situation as Taco was last year: great numbers in a limited number of snaps, who will now be asked to do it in a much larger role. Winovich is probably more of a SAM linebacker, to be honest, who’s bulked up a little bit to play defensive end, but he’ll be a stop-gap until Johnson and Vilain take over. Michigan has moved toward using speed and numbers to stop the run, so I don’t think Winovich will be a true liability in the run game.

Will Rashan Gary come to realize he is The One? And, can he dodge bullets in mid-air? Sorry, that’s a ridiculous question. Of course he can.

In all seriousness, Rashan should be able to man the strongside defensive end spot very well, even though he’s ultimately destined to be a three-tech defensive tackle in the NFL. Both Maurice Hurst and Bryan Mone are quality-level starters on the inside, and Gary is versatile and athletic enough to chase down guys on the perimeter as well as Chris Wormley could (and, really, that was an underrated part of his game).

The fun part will be watching him overpower offensive tackles, and then moving him over to the other side and sending a linebacker blitz that way instead. Opposing tackles are going to haaate playing us.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

How good will Bryan Mone become? We all know his counterpart on the inside, Maurice Hurst, is an NFL talent who can disrupt offenses and even handle an occasional double-team better than most. But for Hurst to properly dominate, Bryan Mone has to force double-teams to come his way and clog up the middle against the run.

The potential is definitely there. He’ll be a redshirt junior who early enrolled back in 2014, and he’s learned from some terrific defensive linemen who have come through Michigan over the last few years. And, he has all the physical gifts in the world.

It will be a very good sign if Mone can start taking over games more than he has to this point.

How much can we count on the reserves? Lawrence Marshall got his share of hype early in his career, but so far he hasn’t capitalized on it. Still, he looked like a very competent, capable defensive lineman in his reserve snaps this year, and he’ll be a veteran athlete out on the edge who can stand his ground against the run.

Another important player for Michigan’s hopes next year is Michael Dwumfour, who I talked about a little bit yesterday in very positive tones. Dwumfour is a very talented guy, but he will need this off-season to bulk up and get stronger if he wants to really make an impact next year.

There’s also some hidden upside elsewhere in the depth chart. Reuben Jones is a guy I like as a pass-rushing specialist, but he’s probably a long way from being a three-down lineman. James Hudson will probably fit in seamlessly to the college game; he’s a huge dude and has very good foot-speed, so he can get around pretty quickly. Still, I wouldn’t expect him to dominate in his first couple months if Rashan Gary couldn’t do it.

Final Verdict

I’ve occasionally been worried about this position, to be honest, but the more I’ve looked at the depth chart, and the more I’ve studied these guys’ film, the better I feel about 2017 and beyond. Not only does Michigan bring in four quality-level starters with lots of in-game experience, but they also have a good second string to support them and a third string with lots of stud freshman prospects and other high-upside players.

The run defense should remain very solid thanks to Gary and Mone, and even if the pass rush doesn’t have Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley anymore, they might be just as good with more Maurice Hurst, Rashan Gary, and Chase Winovich. Heck, they might even be a better unit than 2016 was, and that’s a very high bar to clear. But I’m cautiously optimistic.