When the Michigan defense took the field for the first snap of 2017, there were a lot of new faces on the field. You know this. You heard it ad nauseum from national media types in the offseason. Some of those players are already superstars or established veterans (Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst, Tyree Kinnel), while some have elite recruiting profiles and are on their way to that status (Lavert Hill, David Long). But others are proverbial “sleepers,” moderate- or low-rated recruits teams throw in their classes, hoping that Division 1 strength programs, nutrition, and good old plain growing up turn them into contributors.
After a 33-17 win over Florida on Saturday in which the new Michigan defense held the Gators to 192 yards of offense (30-40 of those yards coming in a garbage time drive during the game’s final minute), Michigan already seems to have a few of those guys. Safety Khaleke Hudson delivered on the offseason hype about his closing speed and hitting ability. Three others, though, came to Ann Arbor from the same high school and each started to bloom before our very eyes, against a team from their their home state.
Devin Bush Jr., Josh Metellus, and Devin Gil each played for Bush’s father, Devin Bush Sr., at Charles W. Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, Florida, and they were each ranked outside the top 300 in 247’s Composite recruiting rankings for the 2016 class (Bush Sr. has since joined Harbaugh's support staff in Ann Arbor). Now, in their second year on campus, they are already getting extensive playing time on a defense looking like a major strength for a “reloading” Michigan football program.
Josh Metellus (749th in the 2016 247 Composite) actually entered this game with the lone start between the three, having filled in at the last second for Jabrill Peppers at the Orange Bowl against Florida State. He acquitted himself fairly well in that game. He didn’t bust significantly, but he was also definitively not Jabrill Peppers. He played scattered snaps earlier in the 2016 season and memorably wrecked some Rutgers dudes, but most fans didn’t know what to expect from him in 2017. During the offseason, when he moved back from Peppers’ Viper spot (which Hudson has taken and run with) to a more traditional safety position. The lingering question for Metellus became whether he could add coverage to his skill set. So far, so good.
He also did a very Josh Metellus thing on the Feleipe Franks fumble by discarding poor Brandon Powell (Florida, No. 4) like a rag doll, who, between getting decked by Metellus (14) then Lawrence Marshall (93), had a tough play. Watch the bottom portion of the screen as Franks starts to scramble.
Devin Gil (1007th in the 247 Composite rankings) was not expected to play in this game, and very little (if anything) was said about him by coaches during the offseason. As promising as Michigan’s 2016 linebacker haul was (Bush, Gil, Josh Uche), the 2017 class was on another level. It featured two top-100 players (Drew Singleton, Jordan Anthony) and a third player who got talked up extensively by Harbaugh himself before the season started (Josh Ross). It may have appeared to the casual observer that Gil would have an uphill battle to see the field.
However when Mike McCray had to sit out the first series due to dehydration, it was not any of those freshman who took his place, but Gil. He was not tested much and recorded just the one tackle on the score sheet, but he also didn’t make an obvious mistake. If the coaches were confident enough to put him on the field for the first drive of the season, he could very well have a role going forward for a squad that desperately needs some linebacker depth behind their starters.
Speaking of starting linebackers: Devin Bush Jr. is emphatically one. Bush, the highest rated of the three, as the 326th-ranked player overall in the 247 Composite, was a revelation. For years, I have watched breakout performances in Michigan spring games, hoping they would be indicative of how players would perform during the season. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. But to my eye, Bush looked exactly the same against Florida — a Power 5 team from the SEC — as he did against walk-ons and freshman in Michigan’s spring game. He was a fast and decisive blitzer, a squat missile who was too much for Florida’s linemen to handle in pass protection. His two sacks were very similar to the sort of play he made with regularity in April:
But Bush’s most impressive play of the day was as a run defender on a critical third down. At this point of the game, Michigan has just gone down 17-10 on consecutive pick-sixes from Wilton Speight. John O’Korn replaced him and promptly handed the ball off three times before Michigan saw their ensuing punt blocked. It felt like bad times. Florida hurried to the line on a 3rd-and-1, hoping to catch the Wolverines out of position. Michigan was in the 3-3-5 defensive look they utilized for most of the game, with Bush lined up as the MLB. Furbush plugged the inside gap, defensive tackle Maurice Hurst burrowed into the backfield so far that he tripped the pulling guard supposed to account for Bush, and Bush read for a split second before jetting unblocked into the backfield and authoritatively tackling the running back for a loss. Florida missed the ensuing field goal attempt and didn’t score again.
The defensive performance against Florida on Saturday was close to a best-case scenario. Despite the many, many questions about the Florida offense (they are currently 68th in offensive efficiency by Bill Conneley’s S&P numbers), Michigan’s defense made good on nearly every shred of offseason hype from within the program. Rashan Gary was in the backfield consistently, Maurice Hurst Jr. was unblockable, Chase Winovich had a thunderous strip-sack, Tyree Kinnel was a dependable safety with some tackle-for-loss upside, and Lavert Hill had consistently tight coverage.
But for most fans, the first name out of their mouths after this game was Devin Bush - who may have experienced a breakout into superstardom. For him and his former Flanagan teammates, many recruiting evaluators would have said that was unreachable. Fortunately for Michigan, Jim Harbaugh was not one of them.