Position Previews 2017: Defensive linemen

Sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary is among a defensive line that could replicate last year's production.

Sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary is among a defensive line that could replicate last year's production. Buy this photo
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Monday, August 28, 2017 - 8:02am

As the final days count down until the Michigan football team opens the 2017 season against Florida in the AdvoCare Classic on Sept. 2 at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the Daily breaks down each position group for the Wolverines this year. In this edition: defensive linemen. 

They say the game is won in the trenches, and for the past two years, that has certainly held true for Michigan. The Wolverines have fielded stingy defenses in each of Jim Harbaugh’s first two seasons, thanks in large part to deep, veteran defensive lines. The depth and veterans are (mostly) gone this year, but Michigan should still have a talented and fearsome defensive line, with several key returning players and a bumper crop of talented freshmen.

Here’s how the group stacks up this year:

Who’s back: Sophomore Rashan Gary, redshirt junior Chase Winovich, sophomore Carlo Kemp and redshirt sophomore Reuben Jones return as either strong-side or weak-side ends for Michigan. On the interior, fifth-year senior Mo Hurst, redshirt junior Bryan Mone, redshirt junior Lawrence Marshall and sophomore Michael Dwumfour are back for another go-around.

Most, by now, have heard the hype surrounding Gary and Hurst. Gary, formerly the nation’s top-ranked recruit, was named a second-team Preseason All-American by Sports Illustrated, while ESPN’s Todd McShay recently named Hurst his No. 9 overall prospect for the 2018 NFL Draft. Gary may be one of the best athletes on the team, regardless of position or size, and Hurst’s trademark is his uncanny burst and get-off. The old adage of converting speed into power comes to mind when watching them play, and it should be a common sight to see both converge into the backfield at the same time this season.

Their two fellow starters may not be as ballyhooed, but both can hold their own. Winovich was good in limited time last year, proving to be a talented pass-rusher who was also surprisingly stout against the run. It was his first year at the position after spending a season at tight end, which means further improvement could — and should — be expected.

Meanwhile, hype has surrounded Mone ever since he stepped on campus. He hasn’t had much to show for it yet, due to injuries, but when he’s on, he’s on — all one needs to do is watch his tape against Ohio State last year. Mone at his best can not only take on two blockers, but also penetrate into the backfield to snuff the run or create pressure. With those four, Michigan has the best of both worlds: a group that can get after the quarterback while also standing strong against the run.

Who’s not: Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Taco Charlton and Matt Godin exhausted their eligibility. All were starters — perhaps with the exception of Godin, who was a starter in name but ceded more and more snaps to Hurst as the year progressed — and all are in the NFL now. 

Who’s new: A heralded defensive line class comprised of Aubrey Solomon, Luiji Vilain, Kwity Paye, Donovan Jeter, Deron Irving-Bey and Phillip Paea arrived in Ann Arbor this winter and summer. Solomon is the jewel of the class, choosing Michigan on National Signing Day. He was a five-star recruit, standing at 6-foot-3, 288 pounds, and was a huge victory for Michigan on the recruiting trail. Solomon has the potential to not only plug the run, but to be a disruptive pass-rusher. A video of him beating sophomore left guard Ben Bredeson during an Oklahoma Drill made the rounds on Twitter recently, only adding more hype to Solomon’s name. On the edge, Vilain and Paye are prototypical weak-side ends with athleticism in spades, while Jeter has pushed his way into contention for playing time at the three-tech position after enrolling early and bulking up. 

Stats in 2016:

Gary: 27 tackles (5 for loss), 1 sack

Winovich: 35 tackles (9.5 for loss), 5 sacks

Hurst: 34 tackles (11.5 for loss), 4.5 sacks

Mone: 10 tackles (1.5 for loss), 1 sack

Outlook: This should be a pretty damn good group, and should be able to come close to replicating last year’s production. Keeping the top group fresh, though, could prove to be an initially difficult task, as the younger linemen adjust and gain more experience. Solomon should provide an instant impact splitting time with the injury-prone Mone, while Dwumfour and Marshall will provide more help on the interior. On the edge, Kemp appears to be the backup to Gary, while Vilain and Paye have drawn early praise from Harbaugh for their work ethic and pass-rush ability. They, along with Jones, will spell Winovich.

Edge/Prediction: The starting front is, at this point, pretty much set in stone: Gary-Hurst-Mone-Winovich. There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off, as long as the Wolverines can stay healthy and get the younger players up to speed. While Florida may certainly be a good test for Michigan’s starting defensive line, a better indicator for how the depth is coming along may come against Air Force, with the Falcons’ tricky offensive style and cut-blocking scheme sure to wear out the starters. It’ll be imperative to get the youngsters enough snaps in early games — things get difficult later on, and the Wolverines won’t want to rotate in inexperienced players against the likes of Penn State or Ohio State. Whether Michigan’s defense can play at a similar level to last year’s record-setting unit will largely depend on what happens up front.