Note: Edge rushers such as Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo were covered in our defensive line position review. For that Click Here.
With Michigan hiring defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, schematic changes were made, and the position of linebacker was utilized in a different manner.
Macdonald was previously the Ravens linebackers coach, a team that had the No. 1 in blitz percentage in 2020 at 44.1%. The perception was Macdonald would blitz in abundance, and the linebackers would factor into that equation. However, with Michigan having two of the best edge rushers in college football (Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo), the need to send more pass-rushers wasn’t all that necessary. This was a nice change of pace compared to the blitz-heavy scheme of previous defensive coordinator Don Brown, who’s scheme became increasingly predictable throughout his time at Michigan.
Michigan’s defense was still an attacking style, but not reckless in nature — one change was mixing in more zone coverages, and disguising coverages. The way linebackers lined up before the snap, the mix of man and zone, were beneficial adjustments that aided the unit. Consistently giving up big chunk plays on shallow crossers and mesh patterns became a thing of the past.
A major emphasis for the Michigan defense during the 2021 season was communication, and linebacker Josh Ross was an integral part of ensuring things improved on this front.
“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. When you talk to Kalel Mullings and Nikhai Hill-Green and Junior Colson, Mike Barrett, Joey Velazquez — whoever it is, they follow his leadership,” linebackers coach George Helow said in October. Ross, a team captain, was Michigan’s leader in tackles with a whooping 106 (54 solo), Flying to the football, clogging holes, Ross made a big difference.
Ohio State gets the ball to start the second half.— Due# (@JDue51) November 28, 2021
Josh Ross says, "not for long" pic.twitter.com/sEKnvPUTmC
While Ross was a leader for the defense and the LB room, one player he took under his wing specifically was Colson. “Coach (Macdonald) was like, ‘Shadow Josh Ross. He does everything right.’ So that’s what I did during spring ball and fall camp, I just tried to shadow him. All the little moves he does, I’m like, ‘I’m going to steal that before you leave. I’m going to take that.’”
The construct worked out for the freshman Colson, who became an immediate contributor on Michigan’s D, a player that will have a bright future moving forward. On the season, Colson tallied 60 tackles (28 solo) and was named a Freshman All-American by the Maxwell Football Club.
3rd down.— Due# (@JDue51) December 5, 2021
Junior Colson puts this RB on skates.
Iowa has to punt because Punting is Winning. pic.twitter.com/56CwVnaWbf
Nikhai Hill-Green was a player that came into the season with a firm understanding of what was being asked of him as a linebacker, and his football IQ helped him get playing time. “He’s one of the guys that really understands both inside backer positions. People say like, hey, inside back, MIKE, WILL, whatever you want to call it, it’s really two different worlds so it’s a testament to him that he’s able to play both right now,” Macdonald said.
Hill-Green really started to make his presence known when Ross went down with an injury during Michigan’s 20-13 win over Rutgers — Hill-Green had 8 tackles (6 solo) in a game that became a nail-biter. “Being a student of the game and knowing what to do and why it’s important to do it that way,” Helow said. The way that he sits up and takes notes and asks questions and studies film is everything and I think you’re starting to see he’s really playing comfortable out there.” After having just one career tackle heading into the season, Hill-Green had 50 tackles (35 solo) in 2021.
A forgotten sequence of the year that saved the season. Nikhai Hill-Green makes back to back GREAT plays after Rutgers was walking all over Michigan in the second half. pic.twitter.com/bqLsFkv28d— WDWO (@wolverinemayhem) December 2, 2021
Finally, Michael Barrett was a VIPER in Don Brown’s scheme, but Macdonald still found a role for him in the new scheme. Barrett adjusted nicely. “The thing about Mike Barrett that I didn’t know before I got here, the guy is a former quarterback at a big-time program down in Atlanta. He understands football,” Macdonald said in August. “The transition from maybe being out in space a little more than being out in the box, maybe the first couple of days getting used to it but he’s put on some good weight and rocked up right now. Ready to roll. I’m expecting big things from Mike, we’re counting on him.”
Barrett made his first start on Nov. 6 vs. Indiana, and came up big against Penn State with a sack and 2 tackles for loss, as well as making 4 tackles against Ohio State.
Michael Barrett has gotten quite a bit of run the past couple games. pic.twitter.com/pwMqvNIGX4— Due# (@JDue51) November 14, 2021
The unit will be without Ross next season, but the rest of the room remains intact and will be looking for an even more productive season after more experience and time in Macdonald’s scheme.