Michigan’s defensive line has seemingly been the positional anchor of the entire defense for the better part of the 21st century. Names like Alan Branch, Rondell Biggs, Brandon Graham, Frank Clark, Willie Henry, Taco Charlton, and more recently, Maurice Hurst, and Chase Winovich, have led some of the most dominant groups in program history.
Michigan’s two most productive defensive tackles in 2018 return (Carlo Kemp, Michael Dwumfour), as do three key rotational defensive ends (Kwity Paye, Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Uche).
Combine these returns with injuries, positional changes, a new positional coach, transfers, and a talented freshman class, Michigan’s defensive anchor has more questions than answers heading into 2019.
Here are five questions facing the group this season.
Will a freshman/redshirt freshman crack the two deep rotation?
Let’s break this down.
The Contenders: Taylor Upshaw, Julius Welschof, David Ojabo, Mazi Smith, Chris Hinton
Ojabo, Smith, and Hinton, are the three highest rated true freshman across the defensive line, while Upshaw and Welschof are returning players who redshirted last fall.
Taylor Upshaw remains the player most are unsure of due to his raw skill set. He has only been playing competitive football since 2016 and has only played in 19 games total. Not to mention, his weight keeps decreasing instead of increasing and good luck playing defensive end weighing under 240.
This year ain’t it, chief.
The Final Four: Welschof, Ojabo, Smith, Hinton
David Ojabo was an early enrollee and turned some heads in spring ball, but he plays at a log jam of a position. Ojabo has the talent and could play in limited action, but don’t expect Don Brown to burn his redshirt this season.
Ojabo will make an impact at Michigan, but will spend 2019 learning more than anything.
The Triumvirate: Welschof, Smith, Hinton
Take your pick, but I believe all three are correct.
Despite being teenagers, Smith and Hinton both hit Ann Arbor north of 300 pounds and play at a position of need along the defensive interior.
Julius Welschof is now the same size as Aidan Hutchinson (which means he rivals the Colossus of Rhodes) and the German Goliath will be taking a large portion of relief snaps this fall.
Michigan’s offense will be much more high tempo this season forcing the defense to be on the field more. Expect Don Brown to rotate even more across the line and these three will be key cogs in the rotation.
Granted, I did not list any and all potential players and I welcome the Jacob McCurry surprises of the world. And if Taylor Upshaw is the breakout, I will happily eat crow.
Who, if any, will rise from the dead?
Luiji Vilain, Donovan Jeter, and Phillip Paea are very much alive and well, but remain trapped in depth chart purgatory due to injury misfortune and a talented position group.
However, with the departures of Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary, Lawrence Marshall, Bryan Mone, and Aubrey Solomon, there is opportunity to ascend the ranks and contribute.
Jeter and Paea will compete with Michael Dwumfour and a few freshmen (see above) at defensive tackle, while the supremely talented, yet fragile, Vilain will try to carve out opportunity at defensive end.
It remains to be seen, but much like the late 90’s Yankees, my money is on Jeter.
Which wild card makes the biggest impact in 2019?
Wild Card 1
Josh Uche spent his first two seasons at Michigan stuck in obscurity: productively and positionally. But when Rashan Gary went down last season, Uche exploded racking up 7 sacks in 9 games (!!), a number that has only been surpassed by Taco Charlton and Chase Winovich among Michigan D-linemen since 2009.
But will Uche remain a rotational defensive end or will he play SAM linebacker where Michigan desperately needs help? It is impossible to keep one of the most productive pass rushers of the last decade sidelined, so even if it is just in obvious passing situations, third downs and across several positions, expect Uche to flirt with double digit sacks.
Wild Card 2
Ben Mason is the modern day Brian Bosworth.
The effort, raw physical play, and hard nosed resemblance to someone who might fight a brick wall if it looks at him the wrong way, Mason is an old school football player of the highest order.
While, yes, he may never contend for the Heisman Trophy or refer to the NCAA as communists, his blue collar work ethic has garnered him opportunities that sheer talent alone would not.
At first, the announcement of Mason playing defensive tackle was seen as a gimmick or comparable to Boobie Miles’ uncle screaming “AND HE CAN PASS!” Besides being up to 270 pounds and freakishly strong, Mason will apparently see extensive time at defensive tackle for his speed and unique quickness, which is scarce among defensive tackles not named Kemp.
Production remains in question, but word around camp is that he’s taken to the challenge as only someone nicknamed “Bench” could.
Wild Card 3
Mike Danna was first team all conference last season in the MAC tallying 8.5 sacks and 14 tackles-for-loss for the Central Michigan Chippewas; now he enters the Big 10. And while not an uber athlete, Danna brings maturity, leadership, and intelligence to a front in need of all three.
With his excellent hand usage and experience, Danna will see significant time, but will the enhanced competition cause his superb numbers to dwindle? Or will Michigan’s talented front and mad scientist of a defensive coordinator open up more opportunities by preventing double teams and accentuate his strengths?
Favor the latter.
Will Carlo Kemp get the respect he deserves?
The former linebacker, defensive end, and object of Don Brown’s verbal tirades, Carlo Kemp had a rough start to his Michigan tenure before finding his home along the defensive interior last season.
Kemp helped mitigate the loss of the Mo Hurst with violent hands, a lightning quick first step, and an overall speed that Mone, Marshall, and Dwumfour could not produce. While he did not explode off the stat sheet, Kemp did the sacrificial dirty work last season necessary of a cohesive front.
More will be on his plate this year with the absence of edge experience, but rising to the occasion is nothing new with Carlo. From failed linebacker to now being heralded as the most improved Wolverine on the defense from last year to now, Kemp’s evolution has been a welcomed a necessary surprise.
Most may not notice, but if this unit continues to produce at their 2018 clip or better, Carlo Kemp will be the catalyst behind the success.
Who replaces Chase Winovich?
Hair wise? Nobody, that lettuce was immaculate. As far as production is concerned, it will fall on the shoulders of Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson.
Paye and Hutch (new t-shirt idea) enter the season with sufficient experience, but being a rotational piece is one thing and being the focal point of an opposing team’s game plan is something entirely different.
Both enter the new season pushing 280 pounds and both have holes to fill in their games. Paye has to prove he can be a disciplined run stopper and Hutchinson must prove he can rush the passer consistently.
The yin & yang of defensive end talents have commanded praise all off-season for their improvements, but are they enough together to replicate Winovich’s production? Hell, Hutchinson is supposedly on the TB12 diet so a GOAT like season must be in store, right?
No one is expecting them to become revenge tour cult leaders like Chase, but together, the new era of Michigan defense could be even better.
What questions do you facing the 2019 defensive line?