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Roundtable: Michigan’s Run Defense Might Be More Stable Than It Looks

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The most important part of Michigan’s team is undergoing some serious makeover. But that might not matter.

Photo credit: Bryan Fuller, MGoBlog

Nick: Hey, guys. So let’s get started talking about Michigan’s run defense. There are some heavy losses in the front seven, but also some reliable play-makers coming back. What’s your overall assessment of, essentially, the backbone of this team?

Von: It’s going to look a bit different next year, but there’s no reason the defensive line can still be dominant next year. Rashan Gary is going to be the “dude” next year, as Dr. Blitz would call him. I think Bryan Mone and Mo Hurst coming back for another year will help anchor the interior defensive line and provide a veteran presence that will be missed by the likes of Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley.

The end opposite of Gary will more than likely be Chase Winovich, who made his first career start last season against UCF. He did more damage later in the year, where he recorded three sacks in the final five games of the season. I think Winovich could do some nice work with Gary on the other side of him.

Finally, all the defensive lineman prospects coming in helps Michigan with depth. Obviously, getting five-star Aubrey Solomon was huge on Signing Day. Two defensive lineman, Donovan Jeter and Corey Malone-Hatcher, enrolled early, so they will have an advantage heading into the season. One freshman I particularly like is Luiji Vilain, a very highly-rated four-star defensive end prospect. His quickness to rush the passer is intimidating, as displayed in this highlight reel.

I have no issues with the defensive line heading into the 2017 season, even with guys like Wormley and Charlton heading to the NFL.

James: We’re certainly losing some production from last year. Taco Charlton led the team in sacks and quarterback hits, and also recorded 43 tackles and 13 tackles for loss. Chris Wormley recorded 40 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 3 blocked kicks.

That’s a lot of production to replace, and it’s not the only thing we’re losing. We’re also going to miss their senior leadership. However, there’s no reason to think that will necessarily lead to a marked decrease in performance from the unit. Rashan Gary figures to play a more prominent role next year, as well as both Mo Hurst (who was no slouch last year with 40 tackles, 9 TFL, and 6 sacks) and Bryan Mone (who was plagued by injuries most of the year) - who will provide continuity and experience.

Outside of those core three up front, you have guys like Chase Winovich (35 tackles, 9.5 TFL, and 6 sacks) who looked very good at the end of last season and will move into starting roles this year. There’s also some of the new guys like Aubrey Solomon, Corey Malone-Hatcher, and Luiji Vilain who could contribute as freshman. Also remember Mike McCray will be back next year to anchor an otherwise young LB unit.

Photo credit: Bryan Fuller, MGoBlog

Totally Not Nick*: I’ve gotten off the fence a little bit when it comes to the front seven. Don Brown showed last year that he can get young linebackers (Devin Bush and Devin Gil, in that case) to play well early in their careers. Now, Bush is a year older but still has his speed and blitzing ability on the weak side, Mike McCray is a solid option in the middle (nobody mention his injury history!! I think it’s gone), and I’m actually intrigued what might happen at Viper.

And as for the defensive line, the reinforcements really did come in at the last possible second. I’m hopeful that Michael Dwumfour and Lawrence Marshall will be huge assets. In a larger sense, I do think we have to get used to young guys stepping up into potentially large roles (after all, that’s been Harbaugh’s M.O.), and reserve snaps on the defensive line is a manageable set of shoes to fill. Like I said, I’m feeling hopeful.

* What. It’s been a busy week.

Nick: There are a couple guys in particular I want to talk about - Rashan Gary and Aubrey Solomon. What do you see Rashan’s role being in 2017, and how effective do you think Aubrey will be in his first year?

Von: Like I said previously, Rashan is going to be the dude. He will be an every-down player this season. Check out Harbaugh’s Twitter page; he posted a video singling out Gary in a workout. And boy, it was impressive. He already has the makings of a collegiate star. We are lucky to have him at Michigan.

As for Solomon, I think he will have a similar role to what Gary had in his freshman season. He will get reps, no doubt, but he won’t be out there all the time. He will provide excellent depth to the line and come in when needed. If someone gets severely injured, he will probably be the first guy to be called on to replace the injured player. When used, Solomon will be very effective for Michigan.

Hawaii v Michigan
Rashan Gary was light on stats, but he got better, and stronger, as the year went along.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

James: I will echo Von’s conference of dude status upon Rashan Gary. Next year he will be one of the key guys in the DLine rotation and the 27 tackles, 5 TFLs, 1 sack, and 7 QB hits he tallied in limited time last year will go through the roof when he gets starter-level playing time. Solomon will likely play a similar role to what Gary did last year. Primarily depth, but still a good number of snaps. I also expect him to put up numbers in the same ballpark next year as to what Gary did in his freshman campaign.

TN: Yeah, Rashan Gary is going to be a beast. The worst part is how many mismatches he can create during the course of a game - he’s so strong, but he also might be our best pass rusher. Whoever teams are worried about on the offensive line, Rashan Gary is going to tear them apart. Gary makes offensive line scouting fun, and THAT is truly a miracle.

As for Aubrey Solomon, I’m also going to temper my expectations in the short term. I think there will be a three-headed monster on the inside competing for playing time as a freshman, with James Hudson and Deron Irving-Bey also worth keeping an eye on. I actually think Hudson’s good use of hands and physicality might give him an early edge there.

Nick: How concerned are you about the depth at either DL or LB? Where are you not concerned?

Von: DL depth concern? None whatsoever.

Linebacker, on the other hand, is a completely different question.

Mike McCray will be the leader of the group, with Devin Bush Jr. also leading some of the way, as he had a lot of playing time last year. But luckily there is another Glasgow brother to help out, and we know they are hard-working walk ons.

Michigan did however pick up four linebackers in the 2017 class, with three of them being four-star players. It is a very young linebacking corps, so we will have to wait to see how that project turns out.

Capitol One Orange Bowl - Florida State v Michigan
McCray has great speed, 248 pounds of muscle and now solid experience.
Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

James: Youth is going to be the nom de guerre both units will go by next year. I’m less concerned about the DLine than the LB corp. The former has more experience coming back, and is probably the more talented of the two. I won’t say that I’m concerned about the depth at LB, because there are plenty of talented guys on the roster, but I am a little concerned about how the relative youth will impact performance.

TN: I’m going to say not concerned. The depth at DL is very solid, and the depth at linebacker is less of an issue - lots of teams find their three guys and then roll with them all year long barring injury. We already have two fairly safe options there (Bush and McCray), and I liked what I saw from Josh Metellus in the Orange Bowl. We’ll figure the rest out as we go.

Nick: So, how does Michigan replace Jabrill?

Von: It’s insanely hard to replace an All-American, Heisman Finalist Swiss Army Knife like Jabrill Peppers. He did it all for Michigan the last two years and will be heavily missed.

For Harbaugh, it’s going to be a “next man up” mentality for every position, including Jabrill’s “everything” position. I’m not entirely sure who that will be, but I have faith in Harbaugh to get somebody else in the mix for that spot.

James: Quite simply, it doesn’t. Players are unique, and I don’t think there’s another Jabrill on the roster. With that being said, Don Brown will be able to adjust the defense to best fit what he has to work with. Losing a player of Jabrill’s quality is tough, but it’s not the end of the world and the defense will still be quite good next year.

TN: I remember when Josh Metellus first committed, and I wasn’t that enthused about what he brought to the team. I remember thinking he was scrappy, but small.

I was blown away by what he was able to do during the FSU game, to be honest - maybe because I had expected so little from him to start. There was one run in the second quarter he went from the left side of the formation to the right to chase down Dalvin Cook, and actually caught up to him because of his speed and his immediate recognition of how the play was unfolding.

In short, I’m going to sit back and watch this position play out with some popcorn. If bad comes to worse, we can put another safety-type player in there and take our lumps in the run game. But we’ll still have our play-making and dictate the direction to the offense, I’m sure.

Nick: One last question for you - how far is Michigan from getting to a Bama or Clemson-type defensive front seven?

Alternatively, on the one hand, some might say it’s not entirely realistic for Michigan to get to the level of, say, Bama given their absurd success in recruiting, and yet on the other some fans might say Michigan is already at that point - thanks to a top-five defense, churning out NFL players, and reloading with more top talent. So what’s your take on this ‘big picture’ view with regard to some of the other top front sevens around the country?

Von: Defensive line is surely one of the tops in the country. But the linebackers are such a mystery at this point that I have to say, as of now, the front seven is not on the Bama level yet, but can be very, very soon.

Give the 2017 prospects time to develop and they can get there. I believe a lot of these players will heavily contribute to Michigan’s future success, which I believe will be making it to the College Football Playoff.

CFP National Championship
Clemson and Bama showed us that an NFL front seven is the #1 way to get into, and play well in, the playoff.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Will that happen this upcoming season? I don’t know, but if I had to make a guess as of this second I would say no. They have a tough schedule next year and will be leaning on a lot of young guys to be perfect when that just isn’t possible. There will be freshman miscues gamely, as it was for some of the guys last season. Give it another year or so and if this team isn’t a playoff team, there is going to be a huge problem.

James: The defense was Alabama or Clemson quality this past season, but I don’t think it will as good next year. Don’t get me wrong, I think the front seven will be a Top 25 unit next year. But I don’t expect them to be a Top 5 unit. There’s a lot of youth and inexperience on both the DL and in the LB corp, and I think there will be some growing pains as those units round into form. I expect the front seven to be back among the very best in the country by the end of next season and starting the season after. Harbaugh and staff have been doing a phenomenal job of recruiting on the defensive side of the ball, and that’s going to pay dividends for seasons to come.

TN: Back in the day when I was yelling at the Big Ten to start taking their recruiting more seriously, I did it with the belief that we had a big leg up on SEC teams who were winning the recruiting battles: we knew how to develop the two- and three-star guys we had, and all we had to do was get a few more blue-chips while keeping to the same model we had in place. Development isn’t sexy, but it gives you a mind-blowing result if all you look at are the glitzy star rankings from 247.

I think Michigan’s been great at developing their guys. That’s not going to change, and I guarantee there’s nobody better than Greg Mattison and Don Brown as position coaches. I believe this year will give us a pleasant surprise from the front seven, and we’ll be in terrific shape going forward from there. Yeah, there will be the Aubrey Solomons and Rashan Garys, but we’ll also have guys in the same mold as Ryan Glasgow. That’ll be what separates us.

Thanks to Von, James, and Totally Not Nick for this week’s roundtable. Somebody we didn’t mention that you’d like to point out? The floor is now yours - sound off below.