The 2017 defensive line will not be as good as the 2016 defensive line. Three of those 2016 ogres were drafted in April, leaving about a nine hundred pound void up front that—at least on the inside—veterans Bryan Mone and Mo Hurst are going to try to plug.
First, though, let’s take a moment to appreciate what Michigan is going to be missing this year on the interior line. Ryan Glasgow, probably the best NT/DT to grace the program since Alan Branch, is gone to the Bengals; Chris Wormley is suiting up for the elder Harbaugh in Baltimore after a stellar final two years both inside and outside; and Taco Charlton jumped off the board in the first round after looking like a monster from Pacific Rim for most of his senior season.
Wormley and especially Charlton spent most of their time outside, but both were pretty devastating when they stunted and/or lined up inside. They combined for eighty-three tackles—twenty-two for a loss—and generally just made opposing backfields’ lives hell. Glasgow never quite received the exposure he was due, but he was equally—if not more—terrifying than his peers last season, notching forty tackles and nine TFL. The 2016 defense was every bit as good as the 2006 defense in large part thanks to the chaos the line was able to consistently generate, especially inside.
Hurst and Mone have big shoes to fill, as it were. It’s not often that a team can replace departing seniors with qualified upperclassmen, but here we are. Hurst is a fifth year senior that was slated to start last season before injuries cleared the way for Glasgow to take over inside; Mone, a junior, started the Hawaii game but injuries also caused him to miss enough time to be largely supplanted. Ironically, they’ll both have more relevant experience than their predecessors, seeing as how Charlton, et al. only had one offseason to learn and get accustomed to Don Brown’s kinetic system.
Michigan fans haven’t seen as much of Mone as they have of Hurst, so let’s start with him. At 6’4, 320, he’s a true DT and bigger than anyone else on the line. Look for him to spend almost all of his time inside the A Gap, while Hurst and most likely Rashan Gary handle most of the switches, though I probably shouldn’t speak too confidently knowing that Don Brown could probably find a way to effectively line him up anywhere, especially given the fact that he’s quick for such a big dude.
Coming off a nasty leg injury that cost him his sophomore season, Mone injured his knee in the opener against Hawaii last season and didn’t return until October against Wisconsin. According to him, he wasn’t quite 100% physically until the very end of the season, which was pretty painfully clear. The 2016 line had so much depth and talent that they were able to mask the fact that Mone had much more trouble disengaging from blocks and occupying offensive linemen than he should have; that said, he seemed to have played himself into shape by the Ohio State game, in which he recorded a career best three tackles and a pass breakup against the best offensive line the team had seen all season.
If Mone is healthy, he is going to be an effective player. The coaches have been effusive in their praise for him so far this spring and seem to fully expect him to shoulder a significant load this season to make up for lack of depth and experience up front.
Then, of course, there’s everyone’s favorite belly-rubbing, quarterback-crunching, guard-harassing fifth year senior Maurice Hurst. Mone is going to end up doing a lot of dirty work while Hurst plants quarterbacks in the turf; according to Pro Football Focus, Hurst is the top graded pass rusher returning this season and is the third best player returning to any Big Ten team:
In terms of production amongst his returning peers, Hurst has no equal. His 34 total pressures in 173 pass-rush reps last season ranks him first in pass-rush productivity among 2017 defensive tackles, and his 18 run stops on 155 run downs ranks him eighth in run-stop percentage within the same group.
Unlike Mone, Hurst got a lot of run last year with the starting unit; he was really only a nominal backup, his output on par with Glasgow, Wormley, and Charlton. He notched thirty-three tackles, twelve for a loss, and five sacks in fewer snaps than his now-professional teammates. He’s a monster, is what I’m saying.
The only real question is how Hurst will respond to seeing his snap total increase dramatically: he’s a large man and is so wildly effective in large part because he can consistently get from hash mark to hash mark in a hurry, so his conditioning and how the coaches handle rotations are going to be important, especially early in the season.
It would be silly to expect this group to replicate the insane numbers from last season, but it certainly has the potential to be one of the best defensive lines in the country again. It’s pretty clear that Aubrey Solomon is going to be an important player, but relying on a true freshman inside isn’t a recipe for success; Rashan Gary will definitely get some run at the tackle position, but it’d be a waste of his best talents to put him there more than sporadically. Depth and experience up front are not a luxury this season, but talent and athleticism are. The defensive line is going to be exactly as good as Mone and Hurst make it.