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Michigan’s defense has evolved from ‘no stars’ to all stars in one season

Team 144 could be special on the defensive side of the ball.

Connecticut v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Following the 2021 season, the Michigan defense lost several key contributers to the NFL, the most impactful among them was the triumvirate of Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo and Dax Hill. Instead of inevitably falling short of replacing these three players, new defensive coordinator Jesse Minter and the defense took a different approach.

Michigan’s defense embraced the slightly dubious “no-star defense” tag and used it as a cohesive blue-collar calling card. When speaking on In The Trenches ahead of the 2022 season, head coach Jim Harbaugh addressed his new no-star defense.

“When you lose players like Ojabo and Aidan Hutchinson, Dax Hill, Josh Ross, that’s gonna be the first question: How are you going to replace those guys? I think it’s potentially — and you kind of see it develop before your own eyes — I really think that our our defense could be better as a no-star defense. I’ve been a part of many (no-star defenses) that were were the great defenses and it creates more competition within the position. Guys are more hungry.”

The 2022 defense, in fact, was statistically better across several different metrics, including scoring defense, total defense, passing defense, rushing defense, sacks, tackles for loss and interceptions.

Two of those “no stars” were even drafted in the top-60 last year. Defensive tackle Mazi Smith was selected in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys, and DJ Turner – the fastest player at the 2023 NFL Combine – was selected in the second round by the Cincinnati Bengals.

But where does that leave the 2023 defense without two of its no-star stars? Defensive tackle and potential team captain Kris Jenkins sees no difference and thinks this unit will continue to embrace that no-star mentality.

“We continue to embody that, Jenkins said. “We play as a unit. We play together. We’re not gonna separate ourselves based on whatever. We always play together. There’s so many dogs and talented players we have going on this defense. But we play for each other.

“We play for each other and not ourselves. Looking forward to dominating with each other and go from there.”

It’s great to know this is the mentality of a defensive leader, but Team 144 is far from a no-star defense. In fact, the Wolverines have stars at every level of the defense.

Across the defensive line, Jenkins is widely considered one of the best in all of college football and a possible first-rounder next April. Flanking Jenkins on the line are three players with All-Conference potential for the first or second time in the case of Jaylen Harrell, Mason Graham and Derrick Moore. This is also presuming these players consistently outplay the likes of Josaiah Stewart, Braiden McGregor, Rayshaun Benny, and Kenneth Grant.

Both starting Michigan linebackers return from All-Conference 2022 seasons, with Junior Colson garnering preseason All-American buzz. Joining Colson and Michael Barrett is Nebraska transfer Ernest Hausmann who was the fourth-best transfer recruit in America this offseason and a threat to usurp Barrett as a starter and as an All-Conference honoree.

In the secondary, three of Michigan’s five starters — Rod Moore, Will Johnson and Mikey Sainristil — all have All-American potential. Makari Paige joins Moore as the second safety and is already coming off a season where he was recognized among the conference’s best, and will look to do so again on a higher honoring team in 2023.

The other starting corner spot is still a question mark, but features a unique battle of rising talent (Amorion Walker) and savvy experience (transfer Josh Wallace, junior Ja’Den McBurrows). Even with this spot still in limbo, the Michigan Wolverines will have 10 starting players competing for All-Conference honors, and five striving to be All-Americans.

Not bad, for a bunch of no-stars.