Michigan’s edge-rushers produced at the highest of clips in 2021.
Aidan Hutchinson had 14 sacks and 2 forced fumbles, David Ojabo piled up 11 sacks and 5 forced fumbles.
That type of production is rare in college football, where two edge-rushers have their cake and eat it too. Even with that duo heading to the NFL, head coach Jim Harbaugh said there are some exciting things going on right now along Michigan’s defensive line.
New Michigan defensive line coach Mike Elston isn’t trying to create carbon copies of Hutchinson and Ojabo, he wants to utilize the strengths of Michigan’s current personnel and let them be themselves.
“They’re going to be their own type of player. You’re not going to have the same player that Aidan was, or that Ojabo was,” Elston said.
It all comes down to whether the new skill sets can lead to steady and reliable production. It doesn’t really matter how one completes their task if their strategy is successful.
“It’s going to be a little bit different because Mike Morris and Taylor Upshaw, they’re gonna play different. You hope the production is there, we got young guys coming on like Braiden McGregor and Jaylen Harrell. It’s a great room, but it’s going to be different,” Elston said. “For them to go out there and say, ‘I got to play like Aidan and play like Ojabo.’ They’ve got to be their own type of player that they’re going to be.
For players like Upshaw, who had 2.5 sacks in 2021, he knows he has a lot to prove, but also thinks he can be one of the best in the nation.
“I have all the intangibles to be one of the most versatile players in the country,” Upshaw said last week. “I can pass-rush from a three-tech, I can play interior, I can play the edge, I can drop into coverage, I can cover tight ends, I can cover running backs — I can do it all.”
Opposite of Morris and likely receiving a heavy share of the snaps will be Mike Morris, a player Harbaugh actually said could be the next Hutchinson or Ojabo.
Elston sees Morris as a player who’s had a really good spring, someone who’s gotten better every practice.
“Mike’s getting really comfortable on the edge and understanding what his strengths are,” Elston said. “Understanding that his length and power are what he’s going to really have as his biggest assets.”
If Morris and Upshaw are able to produce, if the likes of up and comers like Harrell and McGregor ascend, if Michigan develops more of an inside pass-rush from the interior linemen — all big ifs, then maybe the Wolverines can excel without Ojabo and Hutchinson. That’s certainly the plan.
“Credit to those guys, when they had their opportunity, they went off and they did a lot for our football team,” Upshaw said. “But they’re gone, they’re not here in the program anymore, and we have a lot of good football players.”