Now that Aidan Hutchinson has officially declared for the 2022 NFL Draft, it’s time to begin conjecturing about the next college football season. Hutchinson — the All-American, other-worldly, Heisman-finalist defensive end — will undoubtedly go down in Michigan history as one of the greats. So how does Mike Macdonald and company go about replacing him?
If you’re looking for a “Player X will replace Player Y and be just as effective, if not more” type of article, you’re in the wrong place. There is no one-for-one replacement for Hutchinson. In 2021, he rarely left the field, but we did get a good smattering of Mike Morris, Taylor Upshaw and Jaylen Harrell throughout the year. These are three very unique players, all three of which are likely to step in and fill the Hutchinson-shaped void to differing degrees.
Morris is a rising senior and has always stood out to me when he’s on the field due to both his long hair (a rarity out of defensive lineman) and his monstrous size. Morris is listed at 6-foot-6, 278 pounds and is every bit of both. He spent time in 2021 rotating between both end and tackle. He’s one of the few guys on the Michigan roster with the size and speed to play both with his hand in the dirt and while standing up. It will be fascinating to see if the staff has him slim down and play more standing up or to beef up and provide more assistance in the interior.
Upshaw is a graduate student who recently announced he is returning for one more year. Upshaw came to Michigan as an unheralded recruit of Don Brown’s liking, but quietly worked his way into some playing time. Many expected him to be Hutchinson’s primary backup this year. While that wasn’t necessarily the case, he by no means fell off the depth chart with a few key stops here and there. While Upshaw’s upside may be limited, he has been in the program for several years and will provide veteran leadership to a group of younger, more unproven players.
Last, but certainly not least, is Harrell, a rising junior out of Tampa, Florida. He is the youngest and most athletic of these three. He typically was on the field during obvious passing downs as he was capable of playing outside linebacker as well as rush the passer. He started 2021 as a somewhat unknown player but ended the year starting in the Big Ten Championship while making four tackles, one for loss and getting a quarterback hurry. It’s safe to say Harrell is a bit raw, but his upside is through the roof.
It is obviously very early as we are still eight-plus months away from college football beginning a new season. If last offseason was any indication, roster turnover will be rampant with the transfer portal becoming more and more prevalent in the college football world. With that being said, if I had to guess today what I think the rotation will be, I would guess Morris starts the year replacing Hutchinson, but all three of these players split time in the spot. I foresee a 40/40/20 split with Morris and Harrell seeing 40% of the playing time each with the occasional Upshaw appearance.
Replacing Hutchinson will be impossible in one year. However, Michigan has the athletes to make the step back a minor one, rather than a devastating regression.