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How Josh Ross is ‘the heart’ of Michigan’s defense

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“He’s willing to take off that double team and just annihilate.”

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

Michigan linebacker Josh Ross has been all over the field this season. He’s playing with awareness, speed, and strength — the improvements are noticeable, both on the field, and off it as a leader for Michigan.

“His value off the field is he is a tremendous competitor and student in the classroom,” linebackers coach George Helow told the media on Wednesday. “I was just up there with Josh thirty minutes ago — he was up there in my office. We’re talking ball, he understands the full picture, so he understands the scheme, what we’re trying to do, and how our packages utilize him and the people around him. And then he also understands the preparation that goes into it from the attention to detail that’s involved in the week-to-week stuff, watching film, and then being able to make in-game adjustments on the field.”

Ross putting in the extra work in the film classroom has paid dividends on Saturday’s, where he’s gotten the defense lined up in the right position more often than not. Communication has been fluid.

“He’s the heart of the defense, ties all the fronts and coverages together. He’s done a tremendous job. He’s infectious to the people around him,” Helow said. “When you talk to Kalel Mullings, Nikhai Hill-Green, Junior Colson, Mike Barrett, Joey Velazquez — whoever it is, they follow his leadership.”

Leadership matters, but so does skill and speed. Through five games, Ross seems to be really hitting his stride and is playing faster than he has in the past. Head coach Jim Harbaugh said Ross looks a step quicker. Ross credits some of it to taking yoga, and Helow believes part of it boils down to his film study and knowing what’s coming on offense.

“When you know what plays are coming based off whether it’s the alignment of the tight ends, the backfield sets, you can anticipate things happening,” Helow said. “I don’t know if he’s faster right now than he physically was last year, but the way he reacts to stuff, the way that he’s seeing the game and the way that he’s playing sure looks faster to me.”

Harbaugh commended Ross’ “instincts and the way he’s able to diagnose a play and be there a step and a half to two steps in the right direction, time after time.”

Through five games, Ross has 32 tackles and is playing a more aggressive brand of football. His newfound approach has been working, something outside linebacker Aidan Hutchinson noticed this spring.

“A lot more downhill,” Hutchinson said at Big Ten Media Day. “I’ve seen him just destroy some guys in spring ball that are a lot bigger than him. It’s really good to see that from your inside linebacker and that he’s willing to take off that double team and just annihilate.”

Michigan will continue to lean on Ross’ presence and preparation to continue their impressive start to the season on defense. The speed and awareness of Ross will be tested this weekend when 5-0 Michigan plays at 3-3 Nebraska — the Cornhuskers have one of the fastest quarterbacks in all of college football in Adrian Martinez. This will be Ross’ and Michigan’s biggest test yet, and if they’re going to bottle Martinez up it means Ross will have done the things outlined above by Helow, Hutchinson, and Harbaugh.