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Michigan Football: Three defensive players with the most to prove in 2021

All three have shown flashes, but Michigan needs for them to break through.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 21 Michigan at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the first year without Don Brown at the helm of the defense, all eyes will be on that side of the ball. Say what you will about Michigan’s recruiting recently, but there is a plethora of raw talent on defense. Now under Mike Macdonald, Michigan desperately needs the defense to learn the new scheme quickly and adapt. There are some known entities in Aidan Hutchinson, Dax Hill, and Brad Hawkins. However, there are a handful of lynchpin players who will need to step up under immense scrutiny. Let’s take a look at who has the most to prove.

Mazi Smith, DL

A highly-touted defensive tackle out of high school, Smith has been the darling of the Michigan coaching staff in pre-season interviews. At the Big Ten Media Days, he was routinely mentioned as a player to watch, and deservedly so. It’s no secret that the Wolverines have struggled on the interior of the defensive line of late so it stands to reason that Mazi Smith will have to play a huge role in 2021. My optimism is still very high for Smith but if he isn’t able to produce this season he may begin to enter recruiting bust territory.

Taylor Upshaw, DL

Upshaw has been a bit of a forgotten man on the Michigan defense. Despite having some quality games and big moments, the focus has always been on the Aidan Hutchinsons and Kwity Payes of the world. Now with a starting spot squarely in his sights, Upshaw has a chance to be a breakout star. He will have some competition with David Ojabo and company but I fully expect Taylor to hang onto a starting spot all season. All eyes will be on Upshaw early in the season in order to gauge expectations for the remainder of the Michigan season.

Vincent Gray, CB

It’s hard for many Michigan fans to get the image of Gray routinely being torched on the outside and obviously grabbing, causing pass interference call after pass interference call out of their heads. However, Gray quietly improved game after game in 2020 and at the very least became less of a liability by the end of the season. Now a year older and wiser, Gray is expected to start again in 2021. In the absence of a breakthrough by one of the younger corners, Vincent could even be in line for a vast majority of the snaps defensively. Gray will need to come out early and prove himself in order to win the favor of the coaching staff and Michigan fanbase. The raw talent is there, however, so that is not entirely out of the question. Consistency, speed, and the ability to avoid penalties will go a long way in Vincent Gray’s development, a development Michigan sorely needs.