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2021 Michigan football position unit grades: Defense

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Some guys were on a different level this season.

87th Heisman Trophy Media Availability Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines needed an upgrade on defense in order to win big games and get to the College Football Playoff. They were able to do just that with Mike Macdonald and the new-look defense this season. Some pretty massive improvements came across the board this year with many of the same starters from a season ago.

Let’s give out some grades for how each unit played this season.

Defensive Line: A+

There were a lot of question marks with a move to a four or five-man front under Macdonald, but the group passed with flying colors. We all knew Aidan Hutchinson was going to be a star but in this defense, he was a superstar and nearly became the second defensive player ever to win the Heisman Trophy.

His counterpart, David Ojabo, was had the largest ascent of any player this season. We had all heard the raw athleticism Ojabo possessed, but it showed up on the field in a big way this season. For most of the way, Ojabo actually was the leader in sacks. He went from a third-down rusher to a potential first-round pick in the span of one year.

But the real questions came from the interior, a place the Wolverines struggled for quite some time. Mazi Smith was exceptional this season after not seeing the field much a season ago. Christopher Hinton also made some plays on the inside as well as two of the top prizes from the 2019 recruiting class start to pay dividends.

Michigan also showed off some depth this season from guys like Julius Welschof, Mike Morris, Donovan Jeter, Jaylen Harrell and Kris Jenkins all getting 100 or more snaps. All signs are looking very strong from Shaun Nua and Macdonald in this department.

Linebackers: B

Josh Ross was a leader on this defense from the start of the season. Jim Harbaugh spoke very highly of him all year and he lived up to those expectations time and time again. Ross filled plenty of gaps and was a force in the running game, but he was sometimes picked on in coverage. He was targeted more than any other linebacker in coverage this year and 74.4% of those 39 targets were completed. Still, I don’t know where this group would have been without him.

True freshman Junior Colson showed flashes of excellence this season while also having some freshman moments. He needs some work but has the potential to be a really solid linebacker moving forward, especially after getting a year as a starter under his belt.

Colson wound up with much more snaps than Nikhai Hill-Green who was the starter heading into the season. While Colson deserved more time, maybe not to the absolute descent we saw. Hill-Green saw just 12 snaps against Ohio State compared to Colson’s 41.

Michael Barrett also got around the same amount of snaps as Hill-Green by years’ end. Barrett was left positionless in the transition from Don Brown to Macdonald. That wasn’t something out of the ordinary for the former quarterback turned running back turned viper turned linebacker. He heated up late this year after missing some games midseason due to injury.

Cornerbacks: A

This was by far the weakest positional unit on the team with Brown over the past two seasons and this year they were FAR superior. An improved pass rush certainly helped, but this secondary was much keener on keeping things in front of them this year rather than manning up and pressing the super athletic wideouts in the Big Ten.

Gemon Green was the only player in the group Michigan fans had confidence in heading into the season. But after being injured in Week 6 against Nebraska, he has yet to start another game.

That is because of the clear improvement from Vincent Gray and DJ Turner. Gray was abysmal in 2020 but returned to promising form in 2021 after being the No. 3 cornerback in 2019. Quarterbacks only completed 59.7% of their passes when Gray was in coverage and he allowed only 399 yards this season in 13 games. Last year in six, he allowed 367 according to PFF, a staunch difference.

Maybe the least talked about player is Turner, who has become a bit of a star in the secondary for Michigan. He was targeted 54 times for just 22 receptions and had two interceptions this season. The junior corner was an All-Big Ten honoree and could be the next lockdown corner to come out of Ann Arbor.

Safeties: A+

You absolutely cannot discount the impact Brad Hawkins had returning for a fifth season. Macdonald moved the veteran safety all over the field lining up almost a third of the time in the box. Michigan played quite a bit of nickel this season in the revitalized defense and it worked really well because of Hawkins’ versatility. He may have made himself worthy of a late-round flier in the NFL Draft because of his play during this season.

Dax Hill is the purest of athletes on the field for Michigan, and the Wolverines were not afraid to use him all over the field. He mostly lined up over the slot this season but also did his fair share of blitzing off the edge creating a nightmare scenario for defenses worrying about his pass rush on the same side as Ojabo and Hutchinson. A former five-star talent made five-star-looking plays all season long.

You could see some clear improvement from some other guys who saw plenty of playing time as well. RJ Moten appeared in every single game and invokes confidence in the long-term of the safety position. Rod Moore also played in 10 games and really started to come along by the end of the season.