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Predicting Michigan’s 2022 Starting Defense

Six starters from last season are off to the NFL. Who will step up to replace them in 2022?

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Unlike the Michigan offense, the 2022 Michigan defense has a lot of questions to answer and several starting roles up for grabs.

The Wolverines lose their four leading tacklers from last season and seven starters to the NFL: Aidan Hutchinson (defensive line), Chris Hinton (defensive line), David Ojabo (linebacker), Josh Ross (linebacker), Vincent Grey (cornerback), Brad Hawkins (safety), and Dax Hill (safety).

There are positional battles at every level of the defense and multiple players with a claim to the starting role. Team 143 will go as far as this defense riddled with question marks can take them. Here’s how I see the unit shaking it out by opening day.

Defensive Line - Mike Morris

Lock. Mike Morris is positioned for a breakout season and will be a threat for a 10-sack, All-Conference season. Taylor Upshaw —leading returner in sacks and tackles-for-loss— will provide great depth and a deadly 1-2 punch off the edge.

Defensive Line - Mazi Smith

Lock.

Defensive Line - Kris Jenkins

True freshman Mason Graham and UCF transfer Cam Goode make this battle much more interesting. Jenkins gets the nod here though with his eight games of experience and familiarity playing alongside Mazi Smith.

Linebacker - Jaylen Harrell

Playing rotational minutes last season, Jaylen Harrell was a force when called upon to spell now-Baltimore Raven David Ojabo. Coming off a spring practice period where head coach Jim Harbaugh RAVED about Harrell’s work ethic, it seems likely that Harrell will now inherit the bulk of the work from the pass-rushing linebacker position.

Linebacker - Junior Colson

Lock and here’s a spoiler for the 2023 season: lock.

Linebacker - Nikhai Hill-Green

Perhaps Michigan’s best returning linebacker at stopping the run, Nikhai Hill-Green started six games last season, but struggled against spread-heavy passing teams. The junior is expected to take the next step in his development as a more complete player in the middle of this Wolverine defense.

Linebacker/ Safety/ Nickel - Michael Barrett/ Makari Page/ Mikey Sainristil

This position is all personnel based. If the Wolverines want a versatile fourth linebacker to help stop the run and hold his own in man coverage, Michael Barrett will be the guy.

If new defensive coordinator Jesse Minter wants to play a hybrid three safety look like Mike Macdonald played predominately down the stretch last season, Makari Page will be the third safety.

The wildcard chess piece of the defense will be veteran player, rookie defender Mikey Sainristil who will play on both sides of the ball in 2022. Sainristil flashed his potential in the spring game and is expected to work out of the slot as a nickel corner.

Cornerback - DJ Turner

Lock.

Cornerback - Gemon Green

One of the most exciting and important battles to watch in the fall will be Gemon Green vs. five-star freshman sensation Will Johnson. While I expect Johnson to eventually become the starter, Green’s experience will earn him the starting role against Colorado State.

Whoever wins this job will face a lot of work with opposing offenses purposely avoiding Turner on the other side.

Safety - Rod Moore

Rod Moore had four starts last season as a true freshman playing as the third safety next to Hill and Hawkins. One of the highest football I.Q. players on the team, Moore will be the captain of the secondary and one of the young leaders on the defense.

Safety - RJ Moten

RJ Moten was one of the highest ascending players for the Wolverines last season. Moten had five starts as the third safety and was third on the team in pass deflections. Despite being significantly bigger than Moore, Moten is the ball hawk of the two and is my pick to lead the team in interceptions.