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Michigan 2020 spring football preview: Defensive Ends

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Kwity Paye, Aidan Hutchinson, and who? While the Wolverines return two starters, questions persist behind them.

Army v Michigan Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

In 1981, David Bowie and the band Queen came together to record the eternal anthem Under Pressure. Most will recognize the melody because of later musical samplings from a human named Vanilla Ice, but the original is a masterpiece of rocker vulnerability and not recycled beats that “wax chumps like candles.”

Bowie opens the song with:

Pressure pushing down on me

Pressing down on you, no man ask for

Under pressure that burns a building down

Splits a family in two

Puts people on streets

I like to imagine a young Don Brown (still mustachioed of course) listening to this classic while drawing up blitz packages in the infant stages of his coaching career. Offenses burning down and teams firing coordinators, that is what is supposed to happen when teams play against the Michigan Wolverines.

Over the last two years, the defense has begun to slide, especially against Ohio State, and the once dominant unit is on its last legs with Brown at the helm.

Ahead of the start of spring football, Maize n Brew is previewing the 2020 Michigan football team position by position.

Last week we concluded our offensive coverage, today we turn our attention to the defense, more specifically, the defensive ends.

The Dearly Departed

Josh Uche and Mike Danna are both headed to the NFL with the former currently flying up draft boards. Uche led Michigan in sacks the last two seasons with 7.0 and 7.5 respectively and was a hybrid linebacker/ edge rushing specialist.

Danna was a one-year rental who transferred to Michigan from Central Michigan for his final year of eligibility. Primarily a situational pass rusher, Danna finished 2019 with 3 sacks and 3 tackles-for-loss. A far cry from his 8.5 sack, 14 tackles-for-loss junior campaign with the Chippewas.

Danna’s production will be less difficult to replace, but Uche will be missed dearly because of his positional versatility and relentless pass rushing efforts. Without an identifiable Uche replacement, more pressure will fall on the returning starters.

Salt & Pepper

Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye are the latest Michigan tandem to return for their second year together. Taco Charlton & Chris Wormley (2015, 2016), Chase Winovich & Rashan Gary (2017, 2018), and now salt & pepper enter 2020 as the defacto starters.

The salt & pepper moniker was first mentioned by Hutchinson in October and elaborated further upon by Paye: “I am a darker complexion, and he’s white, so you know, you need salt and pepper to eat.” This defense will need both of them to EAT in hopes of any sustained success this year.

The duo returns with 22.5 tackles-for-loss and 10 sacks combined and did so with limited defensive tackle support (more later). However, both had stretches last year of disappearing and their lack of experience took over games.

Whenever someone says, “Oh, I forgot Paye was out there,” it is indicative of these disappearances and this happened in almost every game. Espeically against Ohio State where he was spun like a top and missed anything resembling a play.

Hutchinson would vanish less often, but his presence reached beyond pass rushing because he was Michigan’s best run stopper. However, his reliance in run support would cut back on his impact when rushing the passer.

In order to take the next step, Paye will need to add to his game as a run defender and Hutchinson will have to be more of a dynamic playmaker throughout the season. To help facilitate their improvement, a third rusher or group of rushers must emerge to replace Josh Uche.

Truthers Unite

Luiji Vilain has been the talk of the town since his recruitment in 2017. The borderline five-star recruit has been Ann Arbor’s own Greek warrior: Achilles. A true warrior, but more known for lower body injuries that compromised his unlimited potential, and his career stats reflect that reality: 4 games played, 7 total tackles, 1 tackle-for-loss, 1 sack, and 1 forced fumble (all in 2019).

Yet, every spring, the truthers unite to sing praises over his potential and speculate about his impact for the upcoming season. Quotes from coaches and fellow players will begin to trickle out this month about how this is finally the year Vilain puts it all together. Sure.

Cynicism aside, let’s lower the bar for Vilain. Instead of hyping up the uber talented, oft injured defensive end to unattainable heights, becoming the next Mike Danna should be his immediate goal for 2020. If Vilain can stay healthy for an entire season and produce respectable numbers, it will be a monumental boost to his career trajectory and could propel him to start in 2021.

Or maybe this is the year he puts it all together and becomes Josh Uche 2.0. The truth is out there.

Salt & Pepper (But Generic)

Taylor Upshaw and Julius Welschof were recruited in 2018 as extreme project players. Between the two when they came to Ann Arbor, they had a combined 19 games of organized football experience with all of that experience coming from Upshaw.

Since their arrival and excluding special teams, the two have appeared in 5 games combined, with only Upshaw accruing any stats outside of appearances. Entering their third year on campus with a plethora of young talent backloaded at the position, will Welschof and Upshaw ever develop into contributing players?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Michigan at Penn State Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Both were recruited for pass rushing potential, but so far have only manifested into generic, stunt double versions of Hutchinson and Paye.

The due date is quickly approaching on these projects.

Red Alert

David Ojabo, Mike Morris, and Gabe Newburg all redshirted in 2019 to preserve eligibility. There is only speculation surrounding the latter two, but Ojabo is the hot name to watch in 2020.

Ojabo made a splash immediately last year by quickly adding 20 pounds in the weight room and was awarded as the team’s scout team defensive player of the year for his practice performances. Keep in mind, this is a player who only moved to the United States and began playing organized football in high school.

Ojabo is my frontrunner to replace Josh Uche’s playing time and eventually replace his production.

There are Those Freshman Enjoying Ann Arbor...

Braiden McGregor (four-star) and Aaron Lewis (three-star) have already enrolled at Michigan and will experience spring practices for the first time barring injuries. Defensive line coach Shaun Nua raved about both on Jon Jansen’s podcast and while both are expected to redshirt this season, McGregor’s athleticism could get him on the field in 2020.

At 6’6, 260 pounds in high school, McGregor was athletic enough to not only play defensive line, but also play free safety. McGregor is a freshman name to watch play within the four-game redshirt limit this fall.

...And Those Enjoying Prom

Jaylen Harrell (four-star) and Kris Jenkins (three-star) will join the Wolverines in the fall and are expected to redshirt.


Burning Question: Can the defensive ends create enough havoc without a consistent interior presence?

Don Brown’s defensive scheme is predicated on interior pressure and allowing outside rushers fortuitous one-on-one situations. Since Brown arrived in 2016, a correlation has emerged between dominance on the interior to production on the outside.

Injuries, stud rotational pieces (Josh Uche), and all-planet linebackers (Devin Bush) have some effect on the statistics, but the trend in production is traceable and can be linked further to declining performances against Ohio State over the last four years for validity.

Hutchinson and Paye did the best they could last year with minimal help from the interior and the impact of the positionless Uche cannot be understated. Salt & pepper have to find a way to produce without a dominant anchor in the middle of the defense.

Moreover, a third premiere pass rusher needs to emerge to alleviate some of the starters’ burden; it could be an aforementioned defender, or maybe a linebacker playing dual roles similar to Uche.

Boiled down, all of this falls on the shoulders of Don Brown’s scheme because no talented edge rusher can produce consistently without one-on-one opportunities. The roster talent is abundant at defensive end, but rendered moot if Brown cannot compliment them along the interior and precipitating another defensive collapse in November.

To paraphrase the immortal Ziggy Stardust, this could be Don Brown’s last chance. 2020 is Don Brown, under pressure.

Tomorrow, we will have a preview of the defensive tackle position group.