The cornerstone of Michigan’s elite 2016 defense, ranked at or near No. 1 in more categories than not, was its elite defensive line. Taco Charlton, Chris Womley, and Ryan Glasgow — all NFL draft picks last April — were starters, with senior Matt Godin a solid contributor. The two keys to the defensive line’s success last fall were the top-shelf production from the starters and the quality of their backups, meaning there was little drop-off from the first string.
The former will still be the case in 2017: The output from Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst, Bryan Mone, and Chase Winovich varied from excellent-to-great last year, and they are primed to step into the fore. As the spring game showed, however, the latter is very much in question.
Strongside Defensive End
#3 | Sophomore | 6-5 | 293 | Paramus, New Jersey
Let’s start this preview with the player everyone wants to hear about: former consensus No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary. After backing up third-round NFL draft pick Chris Wormley in 2016, the veritable kraken is set to be released. Gary’s production in 2016 was moderate relative to many expectations: 23 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, half a sack. What those numbers don’t show you is impact plays like this:
Here, he blurs past the tackle before he’s even out of his stance to hit the QB. That kind of burst is reminiscent of Brandon Graham, except Gary is 3 inches taller and about 30 pounds heavier. In other games, he chases running backs from across the line, stretches run plays out like a veteran, and altogether looks very promising.
His athletic ability was on display at Michigan's mock combine during spring practice, where he put up a 4.57 40-yard dash time that beat every position group on the team besides cornerback and wide receiver (and fellow freak athlete Donovan Peoples-Jones). He's got the proverbial "Can't Coach That" athleticism factor in spades.
Proud to announce top position performers of 2017 Michigan Football Spring Combine. Offense led by Chris Evans, defense led by Rashan Gary! pic.twitter.com/hAQKJo07Lc— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) March 16, 2017
Add to that defensive coordinator Don Brown saying that Gary could be “the best I’ve ever seen” (without being specific about position) and the effusive praise from other coaches about his work ethic and you’ve got an All American on your hands.
Maurice Hurst Jr.
#73 | Redshirt senior | 6-2 | 282 | Westwood, Massachusetts
Look at this dang play:
On a pass down, Maurice Hurst is lined up at nose tackle — directly over the center. He stunts past the center and around the right guard and explodes into the backfield to run down the quarterback as he scrambles away from Hurst. He gets around two players, and the guard can’t slow him down even by holding him. That is a Don Brown “Dude” play, and he did this kind of thing with regularity.
This is what Hurst brings, in a nutshell: elite pass-rushing prowess from the tackle position. He was rather famously listed as the most productive pass-rusher in the country among draft-eligible interior linemen on Pro Football Focus, and was listed in the top-10 against the run.
He was remarkably productive in 2016 despite technically being a backup player, ranking fifth on the team in tackles for loss (11.5) and third in sacks (5). He toyed with the NFL draft in the spring but fulfilled Jim Harbaugh’s wish by returning for his senior year. Like Gary, he’s primed for an elite year if he stays healthy.
#90 | Redshirt junior | 6-4 | 310 | Salt Lake City, Utah
This story may be apocryphal: in 2015, the coaches ranked every player on the team during the preseason. That team featured all 11 2016 draft picks, many All Big Ten players, and a couple future All Americans; Mone was ranked third overall. As a reminder: Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis, Taco Charlton, and Jake Butt were on that team. At least one of them was supposedly ranked behind Bryan Mone.
Injuries have held him back — a knee blowout sunk his entire 2015 and another nagging injury put him out of commission for half of 2016 and limited him the rest of the season. When he has played, he has shown the ability to clog gaps, take on double teams, and make an impact play or two. Mone personifies the 2017 line as a whole: very promising but limited production, will probably be excellent, cross your fingers all limbs and joints remain intact and functional.
Michigan also needs Mone to stay healthy this year to optimize its lineup as a whole. Hurst is a phenomenal defensive tackle but his upside is limited at nose, as the 2015 Indiana and Ohio State games indicate. Gary is sure to fold inside at times in 2017 but will probably do so at Hurst’s spot, not at nose. The depth chart behind Mone is maybe Michael Dwumfour, then freshmen. If Mone can stay on the field, he is a critical cog to the Michigan defense in 2017 — a space-eater that frees up the likes of Gary, Hurst, Winovich and the linebackers to rack up TFLs. It would be awfully nice if true freshman Aubrey Solomon can play Chase Winovich to Mone's Taco Charlton — a high upside backup who doesn't have to play a ton of snaps.
Speaking of Winovich...
Weakside Defensive End
#15 | Redshirt junior | 6-3 | 260? | Jefferson Hills, Pennsylvania
Chase Winovich has had quite a career for a guy who still has two years of eligibility left. He was a noted recruiting victory over Ohio State for Brady Hoke as a linebacker, redshirted in 2014, played tight end for all of Harbaugh’s first year in 2015, and moved to defensive end during winter practices before the Citrus Bowl against Florida. Typically, multiple position switches in a player's first couple years on campus suggests a rocky career, but in the case of Winovich it seems the coaches finally found the right spot.
He flourished in 2016. Of the two returning backup ends from last year, Winovich actually had better statistical output than Rashan Gary. Playing behind first-round draft pick Taco Charlton, Winovich had 5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss, and coaches raved about his motor. On another team — one without Gary — Winovich would be the budding superstar.
A pass-rush demon a year ago, the offseason mission for Winovich was to gain the requisite weight to play full-time. His most current weight is unclear — the school has yet to release the fall roster (to the great consternation of Rutgers beat writers), but Greg Mattison recently said he gained 10-15 pounds in the offseason, which when added to last year's listed weight puts him at about 260. A reasonable projection has Winovich at double digit TFLs and maybe double digit sacks this season; that extra mass might be all he needs to upgrade his run defense and thus blow up into an All Big Ten-level lineman.
Here’s where the question marks lie. Michigan maybe had the two best defensive lines in the conference last year; now it hopes the backups are just serviceable. The interior linemen in particular are worrisome after getting mashed by backup offensive linemen in the spring game.
There are some bullets in the chamber, though: Carlo Kemp has been getting talked up by coaches since the spring and purports to be Gary’s backup; true freshman Luiji Vilain has the recruiting cred as a top-50 player, and sometimes athletic ends can provide some pass rush as true freshmen; Kwite Paye is a Don Brown project and was mentioned in the same breath as Vilain by Greg Mattison a week ago — somewhat incredibly for recruitniks and anyone who saw a Vine from the Under Armor practices, but maybe that’s a thing; Lawrence Marshall gained some weight and moved to 3-technique in the winter before getting plowed in the spring game; Michael Dwumfour has come in for some preseason hype and was hurt for the spring game, so that performance doesn't reflect poorly on him; Aubrey Solomon is the Rashan Gary of this year’s recruiting class — a freak of nature who will be a stud in zero-to-two years. Where his awakening occurs on that spectrum will determine much about this year’s prospects.
The good news is that everyone but Hurst will likely return in 2018. By then, Solomon should be primed to join Gary at War Daddy status and the other freshmen (James Hudson, Donovan Jeter, and Deron Irving-Bey, to go along with Paye and Vilain) will be ready to contribute. You can earmark 2018 for the return of the crazy, Bama-level defensive line depth at Michigan.