Unlike the offense, the Michigan Wolverines defense has several starters to replace including Aidan Hutchinson and Dax Hill, two first-round NFL Draft picks (three, barring David Ojabo’s Achilles injury at his pro day), and the captain in the middle of the unit, linebacker Josh Ross.
With positional battles being waged across all three levels, the defensive civil war has shown light on at least 30 names for the 11 starting honors and several more rotational responsibilities. The marquee names are known of the presumptive starters, contributors from last season and the highly-talented freshmen class, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
A plethora of talented players who could be on the front lines in November are flying under the radar for a myriad of reasons, from selective myopia to, “Damn dude, I forgot about him!”
Here are the most underrated Michigan defenders by position group for 2022.
Defensive Line - Redshirt freshman Rayshaun Benny
With the somewhat unexpected departure of starting defensive tackle Christopher Hinton, the Wolverines found themselves thin on experience and depth along the interior. As time went on after Hinton’s announcement, names emerged and the future of the position became clearer.
Mazi Smith and Kris Jenkins appear to be the starting duo with several new players providing added depth. UCF transfer Cam Goode and the gigantic freshmen pairing of Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant are the most mentioned players, but one name keeps slipping through the cracks: Rayshaun Benny.
Maybe the new car smell has worn off, but Benny is going to be a rotational factor this season. The rising sophomore is holding steady at just over 290 pounds and has not lost an ounce of his quickness that made him a high four-star recruit.
The Detroit native has one of the highest ceilings on the defensive line and this season, glimpses will begin to show his potential.
Edge - Redshirt freshman TJ Guy
TJ Guy had more sacks last season than Mike Morris and Jaylen Harrell combined despite only appearing in two games on the edge. This statistic doesn’t tell the entire story, but Guy is going to be in the rotation this season.
The former 937th ranked player nationally surprised everyone last year earning garbage time minutes and making the most of them. Guy displayed a ferocity and explosiveness when he was on the field that is rare for any player appearing in mop-up duty, especially for a true freshman.
Guy’s style coupled with his size (6-foot-4, 246 pounds) make him one of the most exciting young players on the team. Guy is going to be a DUDE.
Linebackers - Junior Kalel Mullings
Kalel Mullings has never had it easy in Ann Arbor. As a freshman, he was thrust into starting duties in four of six games as a part of Don Brown’s dilapidating defense in the Covid-ravaged season of 2020. Last season, Mullings had to adjust to an entirely different scheme, role and life on campus. Mullings appeared in 10 games and was serviceable, yet forgettable in 2021.
Now as a junior, Mullings’ name is often unfairly overlooked. Maybe it’s because at the spring game he played both linebacker and running back and a position change felt imminent. Maybe it’s because his appeal has worn thin with the emergence of Junior Colson. Whatever it is, do not shut the door on Mullings and what he means from a depth standpoint to this unit.
The linebacker room is shallower than a Michael Bay movie and after the big three of Colson, Nikhai Hill-Green and Michael Barrett, there is a need for players to emerge. Freshmen Jimmy Rolder and Deuce Spurlock are expected to contribute, but look to Mullings to have the biggest impact off the bench for the linebackers this season.
Secondary - Senior Caden Kolesar
Despite losing three primary starters, the secondary is littered with talent and experience across the safety and corner positions. But one name rarely mentioned is senior and legacy player Caden Kolesar.
Mostly seen as a special teams ace (which he was), Kolesar played safety in six games last year and racked up nine tackles, two pass breakups, one tackle for loss and one interception in the Big Ten Championship.
While most expect Kolesar to drift into that good night and solely bring leadership and experience to help the freshmen duo of Keon Sabb and Zeke Berry learn the ropes, Kolesar is not ready to relinquish a second of playing time. The senior will continue to shine on special teams and appear as a rotational defender, forcing the newbies to take playing time from his cold dead fingers.
Kolesar has that dog in him, and if you want his spot, you better have it too.