For the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era, there will be a major shift on the defensive end of the field. Mike Macdonald will get his crack at stopping college football offenses that continue to get more explosive every season. The team has had to lean on defense more often than not during Harbaugh’s tenure.
Is that going to continue in 2021? The only way possible is if these questions are answered at each unit.
EDGE: Who replaces Kwity Paye and can Aidan Hutchinson bounce back?
Kwity Paye was an absolute animal in his time at Michigan. He was the kind of guy that every opposing offense would have to alter their game plan for. Aidan Hutchinson was closing in on that level of talent last season before breaking his leg and missing the remainder of the 2020 season.
Hutchinson decided to return for his senior year, which was incredibly important for this unit and the overall defense. The way he plays in 2021 is going to make or break a team that struggled mightily at getting to the quarterback a season ago.
Who plays alongside Hutchinson is also a massive question mark. The obvious favorite would have been Luiji Vilain who played the most snaps after Hutchinson’s injury. But, Vilain was one of several Wolverines who entered the transfer portal after the season.
This leaves seniors Julius Welschof and Taylor Upshaw, and juniors Gabe Newburg and David Ojabo vying for the starting gig. That group has a combined 1.5 sacks in their Michigan tenure. There’s an obvious reason for concern with the lack of experience from this group, but someone is going to have to step up to fill in some big shoes.
Interior Defensive Line: Will Chris Hinton make the next step?
Chris Hinton came into Ann Arbor as a five-star player who chose Michigan over Alabama, Clemson and Auburn. This kid was highly sought after and started to take shape in his sophomore season.
Hinton started four of the six games last year alongside senior captain Carlo Kemp. He made a difference on the field with a sack, two tackles for loss, and two passes defended from the interior. Heading into his junior season, he seems like a candidate to have a breakout season and begin to cause some havoc on the defensive line.
The interior defensive line still has not filled the gap since Maurice Hurst went pro after the 2017 season. Hinton may be the guy to finally make a considerable difference at the position.
Linebacker: Who in the world is playing middle linebacker?
Cam McGrone was being hyped as a perfect replacement for Devin Bush. But, McGrone (and the rest of the linebacker group) struggled mightily with coverage in Don Brown’s system. Still, McGrone excelled in the run game and is headed to the next level.
When McGrone was injured, Adam Shibley did an exceptional job. Especially in the Michigan State game where he had seven tackles in just over a half of football. However, just like Vilain, Shibley decided to put his name in the transfer portal.
This leaves an interesting predicament for Macdonald in his first year as defensive coordinator. Josh Ross was the worst linebacker in coverage a season ago and normally lined up on the weak side, but he may be the favorite to take over the middle.
Michael Barrett may be the most athletic of the bunch and is once again position less as the Viper position will surely be eradicated with a new scheme. However, he likely fits better as a rushing outside linebacker than a man in the middle.
So who is going to quarterback the defense? It could be a player who has played very little so far in their Michigan tenure. Sophomore Kaleel Mullings has the most experience with four appearances at linebacker in his true freshman season last year. Cornell Wheeler and Nikhai Hill-Green are another two other inexperienced guys to look out for. Michigan will need someone to stand out if they hope for success this season.
Cornerback: Can Michigan count on their corners?
The Baltimore Ravens finished with a Top-6 defense in terms of passing yards in 2020. Macdonald was there to watch the Ravens build the defense into one of the best in the NFL after finished 24th in points against in 2015.
The new Michigan defensive coordinator started with the Ravens in 2014 as an intern with the team, became a defensive assistant, coached defensive backs, and ended his tenure in Baltimore coaching the linebackers.
The way Baltimore built their top defense was through committing to building their secondary picking seven defensive backs in five drafts (including star Marlon Humphrey). Then, they traded for Marcus Peters to make a solid 1-2 duo. After solidifying the secondary, they went and added Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue in 2020 to bolster their defensive line.
That is the polar opposite to how Michigan worked with Don Brown. Brown thought that coverage needed to hold just long enough for the pass rush to get home. Now, the Michigan defense may be thinking the exact opposite if they follow the same path as the Ravens in re-shaping their defense.
Macdonald already confirmed that he is going to implement things that he learned in his NFL career at Michigan. He was talking schemes with the media when he said, “The best way I can describe our scheme is it’s gonna look a lot like the places I’ve been previously. But watch our Baltimore defense and tell me the times that we look like a 3-4. There’s gonna be a certain percentage there, but there’s going to be a lot of times we look like a 4-3, sometimes we’re gonna look like a 6-1, there’s sometimes we’re going to look like a 6-2, sometimes you’re not gonna know what the heck it looks like. It’s hard for me to say we’re gonna be a 3-4, per se...”
Can Michigan lean on their corners like Vincent Grey, Gemon Green, and others for success this season, especially with an inexperienced set of pass rushers? If the Macdonald looks to replicate what the Ravens did in building their defense from scratch, they might have to.
How much will Daxton Hill play safety?
Daxton Hill is a superstar. He is easily going to be the best player in the Michigan secondary this season, and I can see Macdonald lining him up in a variety of different ways. He could play a little corner, cover the slot, or roam free over the top at safety. The Ravens also have a strong recent history of blitzing with their secondary, and Hill will be a top candidate for that with his blazing speed and playmaking ability. There will be no shortage of ways Macdonald will use him.
If Hill doesn’t line up as the traditional safety, who will fill in his stead? Brad Hawkins is back for another season which makes this unit the strongest on the defensive side of the ball. The other to make a few appearances will likely be R.J. Moten according to Gemon Green:
Moten appeared in only one game last season on special teams, but it sounds like this guy has a drive like none other. Harbaugh said last summer that Moten would send him screenshots of his workouts that included 50-plus mile bike rides “a couple of times a week”. That kind of offseason effort would surely deserve to be rewarded, especially if it begins to show up on the field.