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Depth chart prediction for Michigan football’s defensive line in 2020

With three starters returning, can the defensive line take its game to the next level?

NCAA Football: Michigan at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike Michigan’s offensive line, the defensive line has a ton of guys returning in 2020. Shaun Nua and the Wolverines should be excited about the returners, as well as the few guys waiting in the wings. They have a lot to work with this year, so it will be interesting to see how much these guys develop.

Here is my two-deep depth chart prediction.

WDE — Kwity Paye, SR

If Bruce Feldman’s list of freakiest players in college football has any indication, Paye has a good shot to increase his draft stock this year.

Paye racked up 50 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and one fumble recovery in 12 games last year. He is locked in as one of Michigan’s starters on the edge in 2020.

Backup WDE — Luiji Vilain, RS JR

The former top 100 recruit has had a rough time in college up to this point. He tore a ligament in his knee his freshman year, knocking him out for the entire season, and then did the same thing to his other knee his sophomore year.

The recovery process was lengthy, but he finally got playing time in 2019, recording seven tackles, one forced fumble and one sack in seven games. The potential is clearly there; now he just has to put it all together on a consistent basis.

SDE — Aidan Hutchinson, JR

A first-time starter in 2019, Hutchinson racked up 68 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, six passes defended and two forced fumbles as a sophomore.

Hutchinson is also locked in as a starter along the edge for at least one more year.

Backup SDE — Taylor Upshaw, RS SO/Julius Welschof, RS SO

For me, Upshaw and Welschof are neck-and-neck at this point in the battle for the backup to Hutchinson. Both haven’t seen the field much, so it’s difficult to get a grasp on if one is ahead of the other.

A guy I wrote about a couple weeks ago as an under-the-radar player for Michigan this upcoming season, Upshaw didn’t see any action during his freshman season. Last year, he compiled just two tackles in six games.

Welschof also redshirted his first year, but has even less playing time than Upshaw. He got onto the field in one game in 2019 and did not put up any stats.

Both guys are relative unknowns at this point, so I could see this battle playing out into the season. If I had to give a slight edge to anyone, it would be to Upshaw.

NT — Carlo Kemp, Fifth-year SR

Kemp could have went pro following the 2019 season, but he decided to come back for one final season in Ann Arbor.

The captain of the defense in 2019, Kemp had 40 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and one fumble recovery. Like Hutchinson and Paye, Kemp is locked in as a starter along the defensive line, and is probably on his way to being a two-time team captain.

Backup NT — Mazi Smith, RS FR

Smith played sparingly in two games last year and did not record any stats. It was a bit of a letdown to see that happen to the former four-star out of East Kentwood in Grand Rapids.

But he will have the opportunity to have a breakout redshirt freshman campaign. Now at a healthy 305 pounds, Smith should be ready to compete for more playing time this year.

DT — Chris Hinton, SO

If there is anyone who has a shot at being elite along the defensive line, it’s Hinton.

The former five-star recruit played in 12 games last season as a true freshman, totaling 10 tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss. Six of those tackles came against Ohio State. He followed that up by making his first start against Alabama in the Citrus Bowl, so he really started to come on late in the season.

Hinton is a player to watch for on the defensive line in 2020 and beyond. His potential is off the charts and should be a mainstay for the next couple seasons.

Backup DT — Donovan Jeter, RS JR

Jeter played in 10 games as a reserve defensive lineman last season, but somehow did not tally a single tackle. In 2018, he played in seven games and totaled just three tackles.

Opportunities have been there for the taking, but Jeter just has not been able to capitalize so far. Will he be able to take advantage this year? Nua and the Wolverines would hope so.