The 2021 Michigan defense was a historic unit in the program’s history because it featured the rare defensive Heisman finalist and a timely knack for the big play.
Think of the back-to-back turnovers forced against Rutgers to close the game. The strip of Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez on the road. Rising up to hold Penn State to a three-and-out and field goal after a strip sack gave the Nittany Lions prime field position. Holding a potent Ohio State Buckeye offense to 27 points. Forcing a strip sack touchdown to blow up the lead against Michigan Sta... wait... never mind.
It was an unforgettable season, but several of the key architects will not be returning to Ann Arbor for an encore.
Aidan Hutchinson set a single-season sack record with 14, including three in the victory over arch rival Ohio State en route to a Heisman Trophy runner-up finish. David Ojabo went from one recorded tackle in his entire Michigan career to 11 sacks, five forced fumbles, and becoming a second round selection in the NFL Draft.
Not to mention the contributions from Swiss Army Knife safety Dax Hill, linebacker and defensive captain Josh Ross — providing one of the most important plays of the season when he instinctually shot the gap and stopped Ohio State running back TreyVeon Henderson on third and short — safety Brad Hawkins (who provided the aforementioned strip against Nebraska), cornerback Vincent Gray, defensive tackle Chris Hinton, and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.
With seven starters and the defensive coordinator gone, Team 143 faces several questions at every level that will not be answered until the fall. Let’s address a few.
Defensive Line: How do the Wolverines replace Hutchinson and Ojabo?
(*Technically Ojabo was a linebacker, but played primarily as a traditional edge rusher.)
It is impossible to replace what Hutchinson and Ojabo brought from a character and leadership standpoint, so the better question is how does Michigan try to replace 25 sacks, 28.5 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles?
Next season is all about production by committee. While edge rusher Mike Morris and defensive tackle Mazi Smith are projected to take star-making steps, this is far from a two-man job. Thankfully, the Wolverines have some high-upside — albeit unproven — depth to help shoulder the burden.
Returners: Jaylen Harrell, Braiden McGregor, Taylor Upshaw, Kris Jenkins, Julius Welschof, TJ Guy
Newcomers: Cam Goode, Derrick Moore and Mason Graham
They will all compete for substantial playing time and the opportunity to become the next Michigan standouts.
While other positional battles will garner more coverage, the pass rushing battle is a wide-open war that will hopefully produce a high enough tide to raise enough ships to peer Hutch and Ojabo.
Linebackers: Where is the depth?
Everyone knows the two headliners — last year’s freshman All-American Junior Colson and Nikhai Hill-Green who started six games last season and played in all 14. Most know veteran and versatile weapon Michael Barrett, who is an X-factor against hurry-up offenses and invaluable on special teams.
But after that, where — especially if an injury occurs — will the Wolverines turn for depth and support? With junior Kalel Mullings now splitting time between linebacker and running back, a triumvirate of candidates has emerged behind Colson, Hill-Green and Barrett.
Senior Joey Velasquez is fresh off a baseball season where he batted .277 and hit five home runs for his second Big Ten Championship title in six months. Up until now, Velasquez has seen time primarily as a special teams player, appearing in eight games last season, but the question remains, how big of a step can he take forward this year?
Redshirt freshman Tyler McLaurin came to Ann Arbor last year as a lean (210 pounds) prospect, but took to the Michigan strength program like a duck in water. Currently listed at 6-foot-3 and just under 240 pounds, the scouting report out of high school highlighted his athleticism and instincts, and that is a big reason why he was twice named defensive scout team player of the week last season. McLaurin is a name fans need to re-familiarize themselves with before August.
Incoming freshman Jimmy Rolder already possesses the physicality and explosiveness to play at the next level. For any baseball fans, Rolder posted a time of 6.92 in the 60-yard dash, which is flying for a 6-foot-2, 220 pound teenager. While he is the largest projection of the three options, he could also have the highest ceiling.
Secondary: How will the Wolverines replace Dax Hill’s versatility?
Hill was a cheat code last season. He could cover up the mistakes of others and afford the Wolverines the luxury of playing with three safeties without sacrificing coverage skills. Without him, how will the secondary maintain its malleable advantage?
Rod Moore grew up before our eyes last season, and paired alongside RJ Moten this year should form one of the strongest safety duos in the Big Ten. But as man-to-man or nickel coverage players, both have room to grow and because of a positional “change,” the coaching staff seems to agree.
Enter: wide receiver Mikey Sainristil, the former No. 1 recruit in the state of Massachusetts and a stand-out two-way athlete in high school. After excelling as a circus catch play-maker and physical run blocking receiver, he is now going to play both sides of the ball.
Sainristil demonstrated potential in the spring game by flashing elite ball tracking skills and active hands. Fortunately, a trio (Keon Sabb, Zeke Berry, Will Johnson) of highly talented freshman defensive backs will provide the Wolverines with options on the back end.
Can Jesse Minter keep it going?
Despite losing seven starters, new defensive coordinator Jesse Minter is inheriting a great culture and talent rich group with a deceptive amount of experience. While it is imperative to Minter’s success to handle schematic designs and in-game adjustments, identifying and empowering the key players is the first step to answering this question.
Minter doesn’t need players to fill up the Gatorade cooler, walk the dog or paint your back porch. But finding the guys who can flat out play some football will be the key to Team 143 building upon the foundation laid last season.