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The All-Jim Harbaugh era team: Defense

Which players were the best on defense during Harbaugh’s time at Michigan?

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Adam Childs Adam is a freelance writer for MaizeNBrew and is a lifelong Michigan fan.

On Monday we highlighted the top offensive players during the Jim Harbaugh era and now we shift our focus to the other side of the ball.

It was a tough decision for some of these spots as there were a ton of great players and honestly, we could have just said the 2023 defense, and no one would argue. They were the catalyst for the National Championship run and will not be forgotten.

Hybrid - Jabrill Peppers

Peppers played all over on defense for the Wolverines and was a difference-maker. There were better stats from some safeties and cornerbacks, so we gave him the hybrid position.

Peppers ended his career with 119 tackles and just one interception, but he meant so much more than that. He was a disruptor and was great his junior year when he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.

Yes, this is a defensive list, but you can’t ignore him being a threat to return every punt he caught. He returned 21 punts for 310 yards and one touchdown. He also rushed for 239 yards and 10 touchdowns in his last two years.

Safety - Dax Hill and Rod Moore

Hill missed out on the National Championship by a couple of years but was there for the start of it all in 2021. Hill was great his junior year as he had 59 tackles, two interceptions, and eight pass deflections.

Moore will be forever remembered for “calling game” against Ohio State with the game-sealing interception. It was one of only two interceptions this year, but his sophomore was even better as he recorded 71 tackles and had four interceptions.

Cornerback - Will Johnson and Mikey Sainristil

You could make an argument to add Jourdan Lewis and you would have very valid reasons, but that just shows you how good Johnson and Sainristil have been. The duo have been two of the best cornerbacks in the country the last two seasons.

Johnson recorded 27 tackles in both his first two years and has intercepted seven passes. His numbers aren’t the flashiest, but he is a lockdown corner and teams avoid him. He did a great job shutting Marvin Harrison Jr. down and was part of a master class against the Huskies in the National Championship against arguably the best offense in the country.

Sainristil was just as good and sometimes even better. His career started as a wide receiver, but he switched to defense his Junior year and excelled. For his career, he had 108 tackles and seven interceptions. Six of those came this year and he returned two for touchdowns and almost had a third. His late interception against Washington sealed the game as he returned it to the five.

Linebacker - Josh Ross, Michael Barrett, Junior Colson and David Ojabo

What a list. This group of linebackers were great for Michigan, even if just for one year. Ojabo (who was listed as a linebacker) was the least accomplished over a career, but what a junior year he had. Pairing up with Aidan Hutchinson coming off the ends, Ojabo recorded 35 tackles, but 11 sacks. He was a monster in the 2021 season and helped lead Michigan to a Big Ten Championship.

Ross was also part of that 2021 team that helped get Michigan back to the top of the conference. Ross was very good in his first three years, but his last year was the best. Ross recorded a ridiculous 106 tackles to lead the team, which was nearly 40 more than the next player on the team.

The last two were the heart of the middle of the Michigan defense in 2023. Barrett really came on in the last two years in recording 72 and 68 tackles respectively, while Colson was even better with 101 and 95 tackles the last two years. Combined they were an absolute force in the middle and helped lead the Wolverines to the top of college football in defense.

Defensive Ends - Aidan Hutchinson and Chase Winovich

Hutchinson is arguably the best defensive player to play under Harbaugh at Michigan. He was a man amongst boys in his senior year. He exploded onto the scene and never let up. He record 62 tackles and a crazy 14 sacks. His season nearly got him a Heisman as he finished runner-up to Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.

Winovich was Hutchinson before he was there. Winovich was a force off the end and finished his career with 166 tackles and three different seasons with at least five sacks. He dubbed the term “revenge tour” for the 2018 season and nearly got the Wolverines into the Big Ten Championship game that season.

Defensive Line - Mason Graham, Kris Jenkins, Mazi Smith and Kwity Paye

Graham just finished his sophomore year and is already a star. He collected 27 tackles his freshman year and 36 more this season. He is going to make a lot of money in the NFL, but fortunately for Michigan fans, we get to see him again in maize and blue next year. He has been great and came up with one of the biggest plays with the tackle for loss in the Rose Bowl against Alabama in overtime. He is special.

Jenkins was nearly as good as Graham this year in recording 37 tackles and 2.5 sacks. His Junior year was even better with 54 tackles and two sacks. He and Graham made it nearly impossible to run on the Wolverines up the middle and they helped lead the defense in giving up 24 points or less to every opponent this year.

Smith was part of the first two playoff teams but left just before they won it. Smith was a force like the first two and finished his career with 88 tackles, 85 of those came in his last two years.

Paye, unfortunately, only played in four games as a senior, but he made his presence felt in the two years before that. In his sophomore and junior year he combined for 77 tackles and 8.5 sacks. Paye was an animal for the Wolverines and was on his way to another great season his senior year before it was cut short.