Change was needed on defense for Michigan, and change has now come with Don Brown out the door and new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald now in the building.
Macdonald takes over a unit that struggled mightily at every level in 2020 — a defense that has lots of issues that need to be addressed before the start of the 2021 season.
Here’s a look at some of the biggest questions facing Michigan’s defense.
How will Aidan Hutchinson be utilized?
A new defensive coordinator in Mike Macdonald means Michigan’s getting a much needed new scheme and voice. The former Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach will be utilizing elements of what the Ravens did well. “You just look at any of the EDGE guys from the Ravens and that’s what I should look like,” Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said this spring. Defensive ends will be standing up at times instead of putting their hand in the dirt, and a player like Hutchinson is likely to become a hybrid DE/OLB. The 6-foot-6, 269 pound Hutchinson could easily surpass his career highs of 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks set in 2019.
Macdonald wants Michigan’s defense to be multiple, not just a cookie-cutter 3-4 scheme, and with that he’ll look to use versatile players like Hutchinson in different and creative ways. Hutchinson’s going to be asked to do more this year than simply rush the passer and stop the run, and he’ll be asked to play a traditional end role along with being prepared to drop back and be an outside linebacker.
How often will Michigan blitz this season?
Michigan blitzed a whole heck of a lot with former defensive coordinator Don Brown — Michigan’s D lived and died by how successful their blitz was, and it left corners and linebackers exposed in coverage far too often.
Michigan may have gotten a new coordinator in Macdonald, but he is still someone who came from a scheme the blitzed in abundance. The Ravens D was No. 1 in blitz percentage last season at 44.1%. Conversely, Michigan’s projected starters at linebacker (OLB Taylor Upshaw, ILB Josh Ross, ILB Mike Barrett, OLB David Ojabo) have only 4 career sacks combined. Despite the limited production in terms of getting to the quarterback, there’s room for optimism that this unit can string together consistency going forward.
“I think this defense is going to give us a chance to eat,” Upshaw said in April. “I think it’s going to give us a chance to show our true ability. And when you see us on Saturdays, we’re going to be reapers. We’re going to be wreaking havoc.”
Can Michigan’s corners put 2020 behind them?
Michigan ranked 96th a season ago in pass defense, giving up 255.5 yards per game, and ranked 70th in defensive passing efficiency. In short, Michigan gave up way too many chunk plays in the secondary. Some of Michigan’s struggles at corner can be directed at Don Brown and the lack of a pass-rush, the players themselves made more than their fair share of silly mistakes and lapses in coverage. It is worth noting that Gemon Green finished the season strong and Vincent Gray improved as the season wore on, but Michigan isn’t particularly deep at corner and the production just wasn’t there last season.
The top three corners are projected to be Green, Gray, and D.J. Turner, but there are a handful of other players at corner such as Jalen Perry and Darion Green-Warren who could carve out meaningful roles as well. There’s a lot of uncertainty at corner, but that might not necessarily be a bad thing — all it means is it’s currently a guessing game until the unit performs this fall.
Will Dax Hill reach his potential?
“He’s a hell of a player,” former Michigan secondary coach Mike Zordich said about Hill in November. “He’s very explosive. He’s a lot like Jabrill (Peppers) as far as his explosiveness goes. But I would even give Dax the upper hand as far as his coverage ability.”
While Hill hasn’t had the amount of production as Peppers, his ceiling is undeniably high. Hill has only started 9 games in his career and 2021 will mark his first full-season that won’t be interrupted by a pandemic and pause of the season. Hill had some mental lapses in coverage last season but throughout his two years on the field at Michigan he’s shown how fast and strong he is.
The bottom line is Hill came to Michigan as a five-star prospect, the No. 1 safety in the class of 2019, and it’s time for those high expectations to meet reality.