The group with less question marks and concerns among Michigan fans is the dominant defense, thanks to Don Brown developing some down right “dudes.” It’s been the key component for years and seems to have not skipped a beat after 2016. It’s also very encouraging to know the amount of key players returning for 2018 with some difficult road games looming, and I am confident they’ll be ready.
Let’s get to it and break down the defensive position units for the 2017 season.
Defensive line: A-
Michigan knew they had talent returning who saw the field periodically last year, but didn’t start. Since Don Brown arrived in Ann Arbor, the defense has been one of the best in the country and likely is not changing that anytime soon.
It’s difficult to look at this line and pick out one player who outperformed the others. I will start with Maurice Hurst, only because of the overall performance he had in the season that led him to the highest graded player, according to Pro Football Focus. He played in all 13 games and ended the season with 59 total tackles (27 solo/32 assists), 13 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and one forced fumble. His presence upfront caused havoc for opponents all season.
Michigan's Maurice Hurst was not only the highest graded interior defender in 2017, but also the highest graded player at any position. pic.twitter.com/uAA73oZXWO— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) January 11, 2018
He will play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl as a projected first round NFL draft pick — fingers crossed he becomes a Detroit Lion — and his season highlights are a reminder of just how dominant he was all season.
Chase Winovich was all over the field going back to the Florida game, and the best part is he’s coming back next season. He played in all 13 games and ended the season with 73 total tackles (36 solo/37 assists), 19 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. Below was my favorite play at the end of the Florida game.
Sophomore Rashan Gary contributed as a starter this season and was one of those recruits that fans were very excited to see how he can make an impact. He ended the season with 58 total tackles (25 solo/33 assists), 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. He is in a situation to have a potential breakout year in 2018, much like Hurst did 2017, and have a tough decision to make about declaring for the 2019 NFL Draft.
Thanks to Hurst, Winovich and Gary up front, Michigan ended the season No. 1 in the country for sack percentage (11.35) and No. 8 in sacks per game (3.2). This group is going to be special in 2018 and likely one of the best in the country, again.
Since the first play of the Florida game, Devin Bush was a beast and consistently dominated throughout the season. He ended the season leading the team in total tackles with 95 (44 solo/51 assists), 10 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks. As a freshman in 2016, Bush played in seven games and had just 11 total tackles. His quickness from sideline to sideline allowed him to attack and hunt down opponents in the open field.
There were times he rushed the line too soon, causing some long runs to get through the secondary, primarily at Penn State. Some of the one-on-one defenses created issues if they weren’t positioned right for the offensive plays, and we saw that later in the season against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Another that shined in this group is sophomore Khaleke Hudson. He ended the season with 77 total tackles (46 solo/31 assist), 16 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. His biggest game was against was Minnesota when he tallied 15 total tackles (12 solo/3 assists), eight tackles for loss, and two sacks.
Senior Mike McCray was the one true returning starter from 2016 and had some impressive stats to back that up. He played in all 13 games, recorded 79 (49 solo/30 assists), 17 tackles for loss, along with 4.5 sacks, and one forced fumble.
These guys all stepped up in a unit that was consistent throughout the year and most will be back in 2018.
Tyree Kinnel, David Long and Lavert Hill became a dominating trio in the backfield for the young Wolverines. These guys stepped up for a position group who was losing mainly everyone from last season and had to start from scratch.
Kinnel played all 13 games and ended the season with 66 total tackles (41 solo/25 assists), 4.5 tackles for loss and one sack. He also had two interceptions, one which is below against Cincinnati.
Hill also developed as one of the key pieces to the unit. He played in nine games for 24 tackles (15 solo/9 assist), five tackles for loss, two interceptions, and one touchdown.
Long also was an outstanding player in 2017. He played in nine games and compiled 75 total tackles, (55 solo/20 assists), 15.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. Below is one of my favorite plays from long this past season.
Michigan’s secondary and passing defense ended the season rated in the top-10 over several categories:
Pass attempts per game: No. 6 (25.2)
Completions per game: No. 3 (12.3)
Completion percentage: No. 3 (48.78%)
Passing yards per game: No. 1 (150.1)
Passing first downs per game: No. 1 (5.8)
Average team passer rating: No. 4 (103.7)
Yards per pass attempt: No. 7 (5.9)
Michigan also ended the season as the No. 3 total defense in the country, No. 9 in points allowed per game (18.8), and No. 1 in third down conversions per game (3.6).
One thing is for sure: while the offense has a few important pieces to connect, the defense is setting up to be one strong unit overall and likely one of the best in the country next season. We’ll see what they’re made of on Sept. 1 under the lights against Notre Dame.