In Jim Harbaugh’s time at Michigan, the defensive front and edge rusher groups have included numerous household names and some of the nation’s best players. Going back to the days of Taco Charlton, Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, and Kwity Paye, Michigan has had some of the nation’s best pass rushers in recent memory.
Even in recent years, guys like David Ojabo and Aidan Hutchinson have asserted themselves as All-Americans and high-caliber draft prospects. Coming into this season, though, some lesser-known names were being relied on to carry the load on the edge.
A non-Michigan fan might not have been able to tell you where the team’s pass rush would come from. By the time the season started though, it seemed there were four guys Michigan would rely on to get the job done — Jaylen Harrell, Braiden McGregor, Derrick Moore and Josaiah Stewart.
While none of these names might have jumped out on paper due to some pretty modest production for much of their careers, it was hard to not envision Michigan still being successful due to the depth of the group and the fact that each guy brought a unique skillset to the table, allowing the defense to have a leg up in any situation.
Michigan fans were not total strangers to Jaylen Harrell. The senior had gotten a decent amount of playing time in 2021 and was a regular contributor with 3.5 sacks in 2022. Coming into the year, he seemed to be the leader of the group as a well-rounded player and he did end up leading the team in sacks with 6.5 before declaring for the NFL Draft following the National Championship.
Harrell will forever be an unsung hero of the 2023 season for his play against Ohio State. He only registered one tackle, but was able to force pressure on quarterback Kyle McCord in the game’s final minute, leading to a poor throw that was intercepted by Rod Moore to cement the win.
Jaylen Harrell stunts inside and knocks over Donovan Jackson to get to Kyle McCord. That impacts the throw and results in the game-sealing INT by Rod Moore: pic.twitter.com/6BPfcjzQ1N— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) November 26, 2023
Josaiah Stewart also generated a little buzz before the season, as he was a part of Michigan’s big transfer portal haul. During his first two seasons at Coastal Carolina, Stewart registered 16 sacks. Despite his size (6-foot-1, 245 pounds) it was hard not to see Stewart as an Ojabo-like speed rusher that could cause problems for opposing offenses.
He got 5.5 sacks in 2023 and recently announced his decision to return to Michigan for his senior season. He will be a part of what should once again be a stout defense.
Derrick Moore brought plenty of intrigue to the table as a breakout candidate. Moore flew under the radar during his freshman season in 2022, but his status as a highly ranked recruit carries high expectations. He took that step forward fans were hoping for, making plays in the run and pass game.
His most memorable play of the season came against Maryland. After linebacker Michael Barrett got after quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa to force a fumble, Moore was there to scoop the ball up and take it into the end zone. He’ll be back for his junior season, and hopefully more playing time will lead to even more production.
Michael Barrett sack forced fumble and Derrick Moore recovers it for a TD 〽️pic.twitter.com/bzj058lj7J— RanDynasty (@ran_dynasty) November 18, 2023
Braiden McGregor represented the wild card of the group. After taking some strides at the end of last season, many fans expected McGregor to take on a larger role for the team in 2023. As a four-star recruit, he hadn’t previously lived up to the hype he came into school with, but he was finally able to make a difference this season.
McGregor would finish the season with 26 tackles, 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble en route to All-Big Ten honorable mentions from the coaches and media. Following the season, McGregor announced his intentions to enter the NFL Draft.
While Michigan still might not have gotten Hutchinson-like production from any of its edge rushers this season, the unit was still excellent as a whole and played a big role in the team’s run to the National Championship. Seldom do teams ever make it that far without a dominant pass rush, and Michigan’s unit was still able to pack a punch.
The group may have taken a by-committee approach, but it worked to perfection despite no single player jumping out above the rest. Plans will likely change heading into next season with McGregor and Harrell off to the pros, but more reps from Moore and Stewart is far from being a bad thing. Perhaps more experience is all those two need to carry the load once again as a part of what could be another dominant defense.