Michigan’s defense was top tier throughout the 2021 season. The Wolverines ranked No. 8 in scoring defense and No. 20 in total defense. The unit had a Heisman finalist in Aidan Hutchinson and another great edge-rusher opposite Hutchinson in David Ojabo — that duo combined for 27.5 sacks last season.
Hutchinson and Ojabo are in the NFL now, Michigan has a new defensive coordinator for the second consecutive season in Jesse Minter, but head coach Jim Harbaugh believes the team has the right pieces in place to continue excelling on defense.
Without Hutchinson, Ojabo, Daxton Hill, Josh Ross, other players have a chance to shine and show they’re ready for primetime.
“I think its potential, and I think you’re kind of seeing it develop before your own eyes,” Harbaugh said on the In The Trenches Podcast with Jon Jansen.
Harbaugh is confident in Minter as defensive coordinator, who will have a similar scheme to Mike Macdonald a season ago (both come from the Baltimore Ravens coaching tree), and he believes the best is yet to come for the defense defense.
“I think that our defense could be better,” Harbaugh said. “A no-star defense. I’ve been a part of many of them that were the great defenses. It creates more competition within the position, guys are more hungry.”
The Michigan defense set a good standard last season of what should be expected of them in the weight room, on the practice field, and on game day. The unit played with an edge, really got after it in practice, and that’s continued this offseason.
Harbaugh said “guys are more hungry”, with Taylor Upshaw, Julius Welschof, Mike Morris, Jaylen Harrell, and Braiden McGregor being mentioned as guys who are “right there”.
Harbaugh says the defensive line is better and Michigan’s edge-rushers should be able to get to the quarterback at a high clip once again.
“Really high. You judge against your defense against our offense. And really, the offensive line is same guys as it was last year, and they’ve improved. I see the edge pressure being almost as good, or as good as it was last year,” Harbaugh said. “But much improvement on the inside, much improvement with Mazi Smith. Kris Jenkins has continued to just be very, very, very strong, fast, and quick, and he’s improved a ton.”
Harbaugh said this spring that edge rusher Mike Morris could be the next Hutchinson or Ojabo, he recently said Smith may very well end up being Michigan’s best player on defense. Michigan’s defense might not have any stars, but that could change in 2022.
Michigan might have a star at inside linebacker as well in Junior Colson, a player who packs a big punch and someone Harbaugh says is always thriving and has a great mental attitude.
“Junior Colson had an outstanding freshman campaign. He just continues to excel, and it’s not hard for him. The game wears people out, ages some people, ages some coaches — and some players and some coaches, it just doesn’t.
Michigan’s defense wasn’t on anyone’s radar before the season began a year ago, but their hard work paid off and they helped the team beat Ohio State and make the College Football Playoff. Now the goal isn’t to be as good as they were last year, they aim to be better. The defense may create pressure with a variety of players this year instead of two guys receiving the majority of the looks like Hutchinson and Ojabo.
There will be new wrinkles thrown into the scheme, but it’ll boil down to the talent Michigan has on that side of the ball and if they have it in their abilities to play fundamentally sound in the trenches, at linebacker, and in the secondary.
“I think it’s going to be a team defense, where you do what’s best for the team, but also where we’ll try to do things to showcase different guys every week, and maybe a little bit more versatile in that regard,” Minter explained this spring. “Where you don’t have that one guy that’s going to get 12 to 15 sacks or two guys. It’s just going to be a strong camaraderie of guys that play for each other and play really hard and play really fast. And hopefully, that’s something that the fans enjoy watching.”
The defense is perceived as the biggest question mark, but Harbaugh’s confidence in that unit is saying something else. Harbaugh had the same kind of confidence a year ago when he talked about the defense and its playmakers, now it’s time for the Michigan defense to show that they’re being underestimated. No stars, no problem.