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Michigan season preview: 5 questions on the defensive line

Florida v Michigan Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Brandon Graham, Frank Clark, Taco Charlton and Mo Hurst have all in the past been anchors for Michigan defenses. But this year’s Wolverines have the potential to be one of, if not the best defensive lines in the country and in Michigan history.

For a defense that ranked third in the country in yards allowed per game last year, it’s scary to think that it can become even better. Here are five questions to watch out for as the season plays out for the Michigan men up front.

Will Rashan Gary’s statistical production match his impact and vault him to the top of the NFL Draft?

This is not to say Gary isn’t already the best player on Michigan’s defense, or on its entire roster. He is undoubtedly head and shoulders above anyone else. While Gary recorded 6.0 sacks last year, his true value is represented in the double teams and even the triple teams that he eats up to free up players like Chase Winovich and Devin Bush Jr. to missile into opposing backfields.

The former No. 1 recruit, though, seems destined for more. Multiple scouts have pegged him as a top 10, even top five pick, and former Wolverines defensive end Taco Charlton told Gary he wouldn’t have done everything he needed to do in Ann Arbor if he wasn’t a top 10 pick when everything was said and done.

If Gary sees a slight uptick in production en route to carrying Michigan to a top-ranked defense or even a playoff berth, it’s hard to see him not being up there. Still, that probably means he’ll need less double teams and more help.

Did Chase Winovich make the right decision to return to school?

Winovich was Michigan’s most productive defensive lineman last year from a statistics standpoint, notching 74.0 tackles, 8.5 sacks and a Big Ten-leading 17.0 tackles for loss. To many, it was a surprise that the All-Big Ten First-Team pass-rusher returned to Ann Arbor for a fourth year, but just like Gary, Winovich should benefit from increased production around him.

When he went through the NFL Draft process, teams pegged him as a potential second round pick, but Winovich decided to return to Ann Arbor for two reasons — to boost his stock, but also to clear up some unfinished business against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State.

If Winovich has another standout season and Michigan wins against those teams propels the Wolverines to the national spotlight, scouts will have no choice but to take notice.

Who are the biggest breakout candidates on the D-Line?

Even if Gary has a standout season, he’s already a proven commodity, so that rules him out. To a lesser extent the same applies to Winovich.

That leaves two likely candidates: junior defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour and sophomore defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon. Solomon, a former 5-star recruit, flashed pass rushing ability from the interior as his playing time gradually increased towards the end of the season. Dwumfour, however, was by all accounts been one of Michigan’s best players during spring ball — Harbaugh lauded him as being “Mo Hurst-like”. While Dwumfour only recorded three tackles and 0.5 sacks last season, a significant increase in both those categories seems plausible, if not likely.

How deep is the D-Line?

Along with the four mentioned above, Michigan can rotate in the likes of Luiji Vilain, Bryan Mone, Kwity Paye, Donovan Jeter and Carlo Kemp. The 335-pound Mone in particular gives defensive coordinator Don Brown an ideal run stuffer to rotate in on a situational basis. The Wolverines’ top recruit, freshman defensive end Aidan Hutchison, also figures to see some time in the same way Solomon did last year, once he is acclimated to Brown’s system and playbook.

The difference between this year and last year is the returning production — Michigan returns 36 tackles for loss and 15+ sacks, and players like Paye (who bulked up to 250 pounds as a defensive end) have an extra year of conditioning and experience.

Can this be the best defensive line in America?

Sure, power ranking individual units and bragging rights only mean so much in the scope of Michigan’s season. But let’s just imagine here that it does, because yeah, it matters to us when we’re arguing with our “buddies” from Columbus and Happy Valley on Twitter.

On paper, Michigan has the pieces, but probably isn’t there quite yet. Ohio State has a potential No. 1 overall pick in Nick Bosa (the odds-on favorite for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year), as well as two other first round candidates in Dre’mont Jones and Chase Young. Clemson has three first round prospects of its own in Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins. Alabama, is well, Alabama.

The Wolverines have the talent to match these teams, and perhaps even more depth with pieces like Kemp, Vilain and Mone, but again, it all boils down to production.