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The linebackers: Michigan 2018 position rundown

Two starters expect postseason recognition, while Devin Gil and Josh Ross battle for the WILL spot.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The linebackers may be one of the few spots needing to replace somebody in 2018, but there’s athleticism and versatility everywhere.

Between two returning starters in preseason All-America first-teamer Devin Bush and all-Big Ten returnee Khaleke Hudson, the unit has to figure out the WILL linebacker spot for the departed — and retiredMike McCray.

The hope is whoever fills in for him combines his thumping run support with an upgrade in speed for pass coverage.

Middle linebacker

This section could begin and end with Devin Bush. He’s an AP preseason All-American, Butkus and Nagurski Award candidate and a known commodity and centerpiece of Don Brown’s third defense in Ann Arbor.

His highlights show a whirling dervish with dreads assaulting opposing backfields with impunity. Unfortunately, the dreads no longer exist, and here’s hoping they weren’t the source of his deadly powers.

The rising junior’s 2017 starting debut was simply sensational. He accumulated 102 tackles with 9.5 for loss, five sacks and an interception. For his efforts, Jim Harbaugh presented him with the Roger Zatkoff Award for the team’s top linebacker at the team banquet last December.

At 5-foot-11, 220-ish pounds last year, many suspected he would wear down against more powerful offenses. His Wisconsin and Michigan State highlights demonstrate the opposite, as he combined for 13 tackles versus the run-heavy offenses.

He now checks in at a stronger 233 pounds; another beneficiary of the Ben Herbert strength renaissance.

The question isn’t really if Bush will excel again in 2018. The real question is who ends up as the conference’s best linebacker between him, Northwestern’s Paddy Fisher, Michigan State’s Joe Bachie and fellow preseason All-American T.J. Edwards of Wisconsin.

Jordan Anthony garnered Don Brown’s praise this past offseason, as the former IMG Academy product was still learning the ropes after redshirting his freshman year.

Formerly of Silver Springs, Md., he gained nine pounds this summer, needing the bulk to transition from running back in high school to MIKE for Michigan.

He cobbled together enough good practices to earn some mentions from his mustachioed boss.

“I would say Jordan Anthony came out of the closet and really had his best practice at MIKE,” Brown said on Aug. 8. “So that’s a good thing.”

Incoming 4-star linebacker Cameron McGrone surged near the end of fall camp, according to linebackers coach Al Washington.

“He’s a young kid — eager, eager to learn,” Washington said. “Eager to assume the role (of) being a big time backer in our defense. Very impressed with his approach and his effort on a consistent basis. Because it’s a lot — being a freshman coming into a new environment, and then being a leader of 10 guys when you’re not sure exactly what you’re doing all the way yet. There’s a lot of effort that goes into that, and he’s approached it the right way.”

With the new redshirt rule, McGrone should see the field on special teams and garbage time situations. Should Bush declare for the NFL Draft next spring, he and Anthony will engage in a fistfight for MIKE.

Vipers/specialists

Don Brown’s defining contribution to the world of college football defense lies in his creation of the Viper position. Utilizing Boston College’s Matt Milano — now a Buffalo Bill — Brown fielded the No. 2 overall S&P defense in 2015 despite a vast talent gap. Milano tallied 17.5 tackles for loss that year, contributing to smothering efforts against powerhouses such as Florida State and Clemson.

People thought Jabrill Peppers would be the pinnacle Viper at Michigan, but it took one season for Khaleke Hudson to produce even better.

As a first-time starter in 2017, Hudson racked up 11 more tackles, three more TFL’s and 4.5 more sacks than Peppers did the year prior. Entering his junior year, his numbers look to explode like a Minnesota quarterback in the backfield.

He tied an NCAA single-game record against the Gophers with eight tackles for loss.

Hudson arrived in Ann Arbor safety-sized, but packed on 15 pounds of muscle this offseason. At 6-foot, 220 pounds, he now possesses the size to excel in run support, as well as a blitzed and pass defender.

He already produces better than a former 5-star and current Cleveland Brown. How is he not on All-American lists?

His backups include a hodge-podge of tweener prospects. Al Washington confirmed that the first backup to Hudson is Jordan Glasgow.

The third and smallest of the Glasgow clan, Jordan is a 6-foot-1, 223-pound walk-on who most fans know for his contributions on special teams. Some of them aren’t fond memories.

In fairness, he responded to that blunder the next spring, as he picked off a Wilton Speight pass at the goal line and returned it all the way for a touchdown. This is not some slow-footed Rudy walk-on.

He shares almost the exact same measurables as Matt Milano, meaning he probably would start at a school like Boston College.

The other backup is freshman quarterback-turned-viper Michael Barrett. He arrived in Ann Arbor with the requisite size, tipping the scales at 220 pounds already. Washington noted his intelligence during this week’s media availability.

“He’s athletic and tough, still learning the playbook,” he said. “Being a (high school) quarterback, I think he has a good foundation of football, understanding the game. I think that kid is going to be a really good player when all is said and done. I just love the kid.”

With a year in the weight room, Barrett is a candidate to move to WILL with increased size.

Don Brown also likes to utilize specialists at linebacker. Josh Uche is of the pass-rushing variety, as the rising junior recorded three tackles and a sack last year. Washington heaped the most praise on him.

“He’s one of the most gifted players in terms of edge rushers I’ve ever been around,” he said, “and this is the 11th year coaching for me.

“The kid is different...explosive. He’s better when being confronted. You’ve got to remember with him, he was an edge rusher in high school, so playing in a two point stance is difficult for anybody. He’s made strides, and I’m proud of that kid. I’m excited to see him develop. He’s special.”

The former Miami, Fla. prospect showed up at Michigan at 6-foot-2, 212 pounds. He now weighs 238 pounds, much more suited for the front seven wars of the Big Ten.

Noah Furbush is kind of like a fullback for the defense. He charges at the line to occupy blockers, which opens up blitzing and rushing lanes for the rest of the defense.

The fifth-year senior chipped in 30 tackles in 2017, and will be the the elder statesmen of the unit. He makes heady plays, such as the interception that sparked the early lead against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

He also clinched the Florida win with a fumble recovery for a touchdown.

The battle at WILL

As reported Monday, Al Washington stated Devin Gil and Josh Ross were tussling for first-team reps at WILL.

Read between the tea leaves if you will, but the first-year position coach offered the most praise for Gil.

“He’s another young guy who’s constantly making strides, benefiting from the reps,” he said. “That’s really something he started in the spring. We saw him make a lot of plays. He’s very smart, understands the nuances (of the scheme) naturally.”

Gil started the opener against Florida, and added 11 pounds to his body this past summer. He made five tackles and recovered a blocked punt last year. If he starts, he will be the second former Flanagan High (Pembroke Pines, Fla.) on the first-team, as Gil played alongside Bush in high school.

Ross split time between WILL and MIKE during the spring, learning to be the quarterback of the defense under Bush.

The rising sophomore tallied four tackles on special teams a year ago. He may be best known at this point for being the brother of former Michigan SAM linebacker James Ross.

Drew Singleton also bounces in between MIKE and WILL. This seems to be a tactic to get younger linebackers better acquainted with the defensive playbook.

Between Anthony, Ross and Singleton, Michigan recruited three 4-star linebackers for the 2017 class. He redshirted last year as he worked back from a knee injury from his high school days at Paramus Catholic — the same New Jersey program that produced Peppers and Juwann Bushell-Beatty.

Singleton needs some more bulk to break through on the roster, currently measuring at 6-foot-2, 222 pounds. Brown did bring him up as a contender for the WILL competition earlier this month.

“Those three guys are in that fist fight,” Brown said Aug. 8. “If you ask me today who’s the leader in the clubhouse, I think Josh (Ross) and Devin Gil, probably slightly ahead of Drew (Singleton). So if that would be the case then we’d just let them both play and see who steps up and separates, or if they keep both playing well then just leave it alone.”

The nice thing about the backup linebackers is that they all seem to find some playing time despite the log jam, which prepares them down the road to play extended minutes.

Final thoughts

It’s hard not to salivate over the amount of experience and talent at linebacker. There’s players gearing up for awards season, upperclassmen leadership and highly-touted backups.

If the younger guns are ready to play, expect a heavy rotation to keep everyone fresh. If not, few should worry about what looks to be a killer first-team.

The sideline-to-sideline ability of Bush and Hudson should alleviate concerns about Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush’s mobility. The linebackers may be the biggest reason to feel good about Michigan’s defensive prospects heading into Sep. 1 in South Bend.