When Jesse Minter took over as the defensive coordinator for the Michigan Wolverines, everyone pointed to the defensive ends as their biggest weakness. It was the question everyone was asking: Who is going to step up without No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson and his compatriot David Ojabo? The duo accounted for 25 sacks in 2021, and neither would be with the program under Minter.
His strategy: a cycle of gifted athletes rushing the quarterback in situational downs. We’ve seen this style executed well in the NFL over the last couple seasons and it had been creeping into the college ranks. It worked exceptionally well for a unit that performed at a high level all season long. They showed it would be successful from the first game when they had seven sacks against Colorado State.
From then on out, it looked like this unit was a strength on the team, rather than the weakness they were anticipated to be. In fact, the group of edge rushers tacked on 21 sacks, which is rather close to the mark the two studs left in 2021.
The leader of the group was Mike Morris, a man who wanted all the smoke. The senior said in spring ball he was going to be taking the reins from Hutchinson and Ojabo.
“I feel like I have no choice. Who else is it gonna be? I feel like I have to; I feel like I’m holding myself to that standard. It’s going to be me.”
While Morris didn’t achieve the superstar status of his predecessors, he was exactly the force this team needed. He finished tied for second in the conference with 7.5 sacks, was a consensus first-team All Big-Ten selection and was named the conference’s defensive lineman of the year. Injuries played a toll on his stats at the end of the year, but you could rely on a steady rush from Morris throughout the course of the year. Without him, I don’t know if Michigan could have kept up.
Then there were a lot of guys we all knew were talented. Braiden McGregor, Jaylen Harrell and Taylor Upshaw all had played a role in the past, and they all would have to step up for the team to have success. Luckily, they all did.
Expectations were a little high for Harrell in 2022 because the junior earned some pass-rushing attempts on third down later in the 2021 campaign. He had 3.5 sacks, two of which came against Purdue in the Big Ten Championship. He’s got a bright future heading into 2023.
McGregor also took a step in the right direction. The Port Huron native and gem of the 2020 recruiting class finally saw some playing time in 2022. He had sacks in consecutive games against MSU and Indiana in the middle of the season and swatted two balls away from C.J. Stroud in the win over Ohio State. The dude is an athlete and is really good at getting to the quarterback. He actually would have had more sacks if he would have finished and taken the right angles. Here’s an example:
Braiden McGregor me está gustando muchísimo. Le falta ese punto de finura de manos para el sack, pero ataca el interior con la dimensión 6,6" , la velocidad de piernas y los movimientos de rusher para brillar y llegar sobrado al placaje... pic.twitter.com/pJRBcBWp3z— Jorge (@JEduFernandez) September 3, 2022
McGregor is really close to a potential breakout in 2023.
Because McGregor and Harrell were so good, Upshaw probably did not get as many snaps as he expected. He never recorded a full sack throughout the course of the year, but had four .5 sacks. However, he made perhaps the most memorable play for the unit by picking off Stroud to seal the win over Ohio State:
Michigan got a surprise force in their defensive end room just a month before the season began in Eyabi Okie. He was used sparingly early on, but it was evident the former five-star recruit could have success in Ann Arbor. He finished second on the team with four sacks before deciding to transfer.
Another newcomer was true freshman Derrick Moore, who was great early on before not seeing as many snaps later. He recorded two sacks in six games and has a chance to earn a lot more playing time next season.
Overall, you have to be pleasantly surprised how well Michigan got to the quarterback in 2022. It was no easy task replacing two of the best players Jim Harbaugh has had at Michigan, along with their defensive coordinator, and still nearly match the productivity of what was a great defense. Once again, it was the strength of the defense this season and they have a chance to be even better in Minter’s second season leading the defense.