With Jeter back to full health, Michigan defense hoping bye week will help start turnaround

Tuesday, September 17, 2019 - 10:39pm

Junior defensive lineman Donovan Jeter is fully healthy ahead of Michigan’s matchup with Wisconsin.

Junior defensive lineman Donovan Jeter is fully healthy ahead of Michigan’s matchup with Wisconsin. Buy this photo
Alexandria Pompei/Daily

Don Brown let out a sigh and a trailing “you know” before pausing.

Standing in the Schembechler Hall lobby last week, he had just been asked for his assessment of his defense through two weeks. The indecision in his initial reaction continued throughout his answer as he shuffled between positives and negatives, resistant to any grand declarations.

The evidence for each came naturally. In its first two games, every regulation touchdown that Michigan’s first-team defense allowed came off a turnover. And yet, the Wolverines were 50th in Division I with 21 points per game allowed despite not facing a Power Five team.

All of that, though, was before the bye week.

“We haven’t been playing the best football we can play,” said senior safety Josh Metellus. “And we know that we’ve got guys in this building whose potential is way up here. We’re not reaching that.”

A bye week, of course, isn’t some magic cure. Wisconsin had one of its own and was off a start in which it outscored opposition, 110-0.

Still, it’s an opportunity for Michigan to look itself in the mirror and diagnose what went wrong in its underwhelming start. The Wolverines will hold most of that diagnosis close to their chest until Saturday, but junior defensive tackle Donovan Jeter’s return to full health is one piece of the puzzle that can’t be hidden.

“Donovan’s a really aggressive player,” said junior defensive tackle Ben Mason. “He adds a lot. Big guy, comes off the ball hard. So it should a good add for us this week.”

After missing the opener against Middle Tennessee State, Jeter returned against Army in week two, but was limited to a few snaps. It stood in direct contrast to the expectations that bubbled for him throughout the spring, when he was one of Michigan’s most hyped players.

For months, this was supposed to be Jeter’s breakout after two years of sitting behind a deep defensive line that graduated both starters last offseason. “You get tired of sitting on the bench,” Jeter said Tuesday, reflecting on those two years.

But instead of a breakthrough, Jeter got hurt. Meanwhile, Mason struggled and senior Michael Dwumfour played one snap before getting sidelined with an injury of his own.

“It was frustrating cause I obviously want to be out there helping the team,” Jeter said. “But luckily it was just one week, nothing too severe. It could’ve been worse, I missed my freshman year with something a lot worse. It was frustrating, but at the end of the day, it was only one week.”

The resulting adjustment had a domino effect down Michigan’s defense. Sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson moved to tackle beside Carlo Kemp, while senior linebacker Josh Uche had to move into an every-down role on the front four.

Against MTSU and Army, that speed-heavy look mostly worked. But Wisconsin wins games in the trenches, by pounding the ball up the middle with All-American running back Jonathan Taylor.

Metellus wants to come back to Ann Arbor on Sunday and say, “This team is playing the best football right now. This team is reaching strides. This team is moving up better than we were the past couple weeks. This team is really doing something that we’re capable of.”

To make that a reality, the Wolverines will need to stop Taylor. They’ll need to make good on two weeks of post-Army adjustments. And, most likely, they’ll need Jeter.