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Rankings Michigan’s top 15 defensive players for 2023

Is anyone ahead of “The Mutant?”

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

Concluding rankings week is the Michigan defense!

The defense for the Michigan Wolverines – like the offense – is expected to be even better in 2023. Last season, Michigan only allowed 16.1 points per game – which ranked No. 7 nationally – and the Wolverines return eight starters under the guidance of second-year coordinator Jesse Minter.

With several key transfer additions and a youthful influx in the front seven, there are several breakout candidates that could help propel this defense to the top of the country. But with so many names in the mix, how can we properly rank them?

Based on rotations and snap counts, these rankings could shift week by week until conference play introduces a little stability, but for now, here are the top 15 players on the Michigan defense.

15. Defensive Tackle Kenneth Grant

The No. 1 pick in the 2023 spring game has slimmed down (“SLIMMED DOWN”) to 339 pounds and is positioned to contribute on all three downs this season. Grant will play a pivotal rotational role on the defensive line this season and if his pass rush can even approach his run-stuffing acumen, he will be an early riser in these rankings.

14. Edge Josaiah Stewart

The Coastal Carolina transfer is the most naturally talented pass rusher on the team and is just two years removed from a 13-sack, 16-tackles-for-loss season. If the 245-pound Stewart can hold up against the run, he could be a sleeper pick to lead the team in sacks.

13. Defensive Tackle Rayshaun Benny

When Minter was asked last week about which returning players could see a bigger role in 2023, Rayshaun Benny was the first player listed.

“Up front, a guy that started to play some reps late in the year was Rayshaun Benny. I’m really excited about him.”

Benny is a versatile defensive lineman and the smallest of Michigan’s top four rotational tackles at a lean 296 pounds. Using this size to his advantage, Benny can rush from the inside or outside making him a versatile piece that will see an expanded role this season.

12. Edge Braiden McGregor

Braiden McGregor is similar to wide receiver Cornelius Johnson: both have been with the program for several years, both have been widely inconsistent game-to-game, and both tend to have a knack for showing up in big games.

Like CJ, if McGregor can finally put it all together this season, he will rise five spots minimum and finally live up to the moniker of the “Sith version of Aidan Hutchinson.” But this ranking is appropriate if he remains the quality rotational player from last season.

11. Linebacker Michael Barrett

Michael Barrett has played numerous roles during his time at Michigan, but the sixth-year senior and team captain might finally be in a role that best suits him. Barrett is going to play as Michigan’s third linebacker and can be deployed as a unique blitzer/extra coverage defender in passing situations, but still hold up against the run in case of a draw.

Barrett will have an insanely high efficiency rating this season as Minter deploys him like a hard-hitting bishop on the chessboard attacking from all angles.

10. Linebacker Ernest Hausmann

Nebraska transfer Ernest Hausmann was the fifth true freshman linebacker to start a game for the Huskers in the last 30 seasons in 2022, and he has only shown signs of progression during fall camp.

Hausmann is a high-IQ player who – similarly to Michigan safety Rod Moore – has jumped the line at his position due to his relentless study habits. Not every transfer could displace a player of Michael Barrett’s caliber, but Hausmann possesses a powerful combination of intellect and physical ability that cannot be sidelined.

9. Edge Jaylen Harrell

Jaylen Harrell is Michigan’s most well-rounded and reliable edge defender, but the only problem is that he is a “B” player everywhere without one dominant skill or trait. If he can develop into a premier edge rusher or an edge-obliterating run defender, Harrell’s ranking will have to be changed.

8. Edge Derrick Moore

I feel like Dr. Michael Burry from The Big Short, I may be earlier than most and may be laughed at, but I believe Derrick Moore will be Michigan’s most impactful edge rusher this season. Moore has slimmed down to 258 pounds and if the spring game is any indicator, the sophomore will be a hurricane of force off the edge this season when rushing the passer.

7. Safety Makari Paige

Makari Paige is often the forgotten man on Michigan’s defense but has quietly developed into a rangy defender who excels at the line of scrimmage and in pass coverage. Paige stands at an imposing 6’4 and has taken a massive leap from his sophomore season (2021) when he was effectively demoted to an exclusive special teams role to being recognized as an All-Big Ten player last season.

Paige’s impactful play forced rotational safety RJ Moten to move to Florida, so now Makari will have a chance to take an even bigger leap with more snaps in 2023.

Full disclosure: There is an argument players ranked 10 through seven could be arranged in any order.

6. Defensive Tackle Mason Graham

Freshman defensive tackles are not supposed to play the way Mason Graham did last season. Graham was a havoc-wreaking pass rusher from his first snap in the maize and blue and a reliable run defender for the entire season. Now, as a full-time starter next to Kris Jenkins, Graham is expected to be even more dominant on the interior as a sophomore.

5. Linebacker Junior Colson

This is the All-American tier. Every player in the top five has the potential to be an All-American caliber player this year.

Last season, Junior Colson led the team with over 100 tackles and was barely allowed to be off the field due to depth concerns. With reinforced depth to support him, an added inch of height (6’3), and now standing at 247 pounds of solid muscle, Colson is positioned to have his best season as a Michigan Wolverine.

4. Nickel Mikey Sainristil

Wide receivers switching to corner in their fourth year of college are not supposed to acclimate like a shark in water like Mikey Sainristil was last year. A football junkie to the letter, Sainristil was a force everywhere on the field last season and with another year in the same system, there is no limit to how good Mikey can be this season.

3. Corner Will Johnson

Will Johnson did not start a game until Week 9 last season, but once he did, he played as if he was a fifth-year senior with over 20 games of experience under his belt. Johnson’s natural talent, size, and fluidity are rarely seen in players under the drinking age and he is not even scratching the surface of his potential.

If after only one season Johnson is being mentioned with names such as Jourdan Lewis, Leon Hall, and Marlin Jackson, where will he be mentioned after his second season and his first year as a full-time starter?

2. Safety Rod Moore

Michigan safety Rod Moore is the most complete safety in college football. Moore has a football IQ on par with most veteran coaches and a playing style that balances finesse and physicality. I have waxed poetic and discussed Moore’s game in-depth to this point and entering his junior season, the Church of God Moore is stronger than ever.

1. Defensive Tackle Kris Jenkins

Kris “The Mutant” Jenkins is a freakishly strong player who specializes in fundamental dominance. Jenkins takes what offensive players give him and either explodes through the line of scrimmage or eliminates running lanes with his positioning and discipline.

Jenkins is projected as a first-rounder in next year’s NFL Draft and is considered one of the three best at his position in the country.

Just outside the top 15:

CB Josh Wallace, LB Jimmy Rolder