All offseason long, the biggest question mark surrounding the Michigan Wolverines was along the defensive line, specifically with their pass rushers. After a couple generational talents like Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo left for the NFL, it was fair to wonder how the next players would do, especially considering Hutch/Ojabo accounted for 40% of the team’s tackles for loss and 74% of the sacks in 2021.
But what most of the national media didn’t know were the guys waiting patiently. Jaylen Harrell is one of those guys who was bound to step up this season. He was Ojabo’s backup a season ago and put up modest stats — 15 tackles, 2.5 for loss and a quarterback hurry. He played his best ball late last season, so a carryover looked very possible.
He is already off to a roaring start. In the opener against Colorado State last weekend, Harrell compiled four tackles, half a tackle for loss and half a sack. He was also graded as the best player on the team, according to Pro Football Focus, with seven total pressures.
This past offseason, Harrell hoped to improve as a pass rusher and become a better overall player. During a session with the local media on Tuesday evening, Harrell still isn’t satisfied, even after a great first game.
“It was good getting back out there,” he said. “Like I told you guys, I really wanted to hone in on my pass rush, different moves and stuff like that. I feel like Saturday — I did okay. I could’ve finished better on the quarterback, but it was an okay start.”
But then the conversation went back to how to replace those two aforementioned stars from last year. After the CSU game, Mike Morris said there is a chip on the shoulders of each defensive lineman because of that. Harrell agreed with Morris and expanded a bit.
“The chip (on the shoulder) — there is actually a chip,” Harrell said. “There’s been a lot of buzz about this and that about who to replace who. Like we’ve all been saying — we’re not trying to replace no one, we’re just trying to get better each and every day. Our chemistry, rushing the passer, stopping the run, whatever it may be. Our main goal is to keep getting better each and every week and putting our defense in the best position to be great.”
If one of the main goals is to put the defense in the best position to be great, mission accomplished for Week 1. From the defensive line to the secondary, everyone played a role in limiting the Rams to just one touchdown.
But as far as the defensive line is concerned, Harrell wasn’t the only one to generate pressure on the quarterback. Eleven players pitched in for the 11 tackles for loss Michigan had against CSU, and nine of them helped with the seven sacks. One of them was Eyabi Anoma, a grad transfer who sacked CSU’s quarterback on his first snap of the afternoon.
“That’s my guy,” Harrell said. “We’re always chopping it up, learning how we can get these tackles off balance, moves setting up, stuff like that. We’re always talking — and he came here for a reason, as you guys saw, first snap sack. He didn’t come here to play around.”
There isn’t a star on this defense, according to Jim Harbaugh this offseason. Not yet, at least, but that could change rather quickly. Harrell, Anoma and others like Mike Morris and Mazi Smith could be the next stars along the defensive line at Michigan. At the very least, they are a pretty good nucleus for what could be an even better overall defense in 2022.
Harrell and the Wolverines host Hawaii under the lights of the Big House this Saturday at 8 p.m. on Big Ten Network.