Position review: linebackers
Back in 2015, the Michigan football team landed a coup.
Devin Bush was supposed to go to Florida State. His dad played for the Seminoles and was a legend for them. Bush was a legacy, a highly-touted South Florida kid who’d have his pick of colleges.
But Florida State didn’t have Jim Harbaugh or Don Brown. And those two convinced him to leave Hollywood, Fla. for Ann Arbor. Along with him came two high school teammates — now-senior safety Josh Metellus and now-senior linebacker Devin Gil. The elder Bush got a job as a defensive analyst for the Wolverines.
And anchored by Bush, the Wolverines’ defense began a new era.
In his final season at Michigan, the junior linebacker was electric. Though just 5-foot-11 and 233 pounds, Bush finished with 79 tackles, nine tackles for loss, five sacks and six pass breakups. Bush was a consensus All-American and a finalist for the Butkus Award, for the best collegiate linebacker, and the Nagurski Trophy, for the best collegiate defensive player.
Though overshadowed by Bush, VIPER Khaleke Hudson was named an All-Big Ten honorable mention after a strong junior season. Playing a hybrid role, Hudson’s versatility was a boon to the Wolverines’ defense.
The graduation of Mike McCray in 2018 allowed others — including Gil and then-sophomore Josh Ross — the chance to show their stuff at linebacker. Ross was also named an All-Big Ten honorable mention.
However, when Bush got injured and sat out the Peach Bowl, his absence proved that he was the true anchor of Michigan’s linebacking corps, leaving the Wolverines with a hole they struggled to fill. How others step up to fill that hole could determine how high Michigan’s ceiling is in 2019.
HIGH POINT: Bush stood in the center of the painted-white logo at Spartan Stadium. Headphones in one hand, he went to work, kicking and digging his feet into the turf, defacing the once-pristine spartan.
This was, after all, a rivalry game — one with no dearth of disrespect from either side. But it wouldn’t have been a good look for Bush to have that kind of pregame outburst without backing it up on the field.
So Bush went in and showed Michigan State who was boss.
Perhaps no play was more emblematic of the game than one Bush made in the fourth quarter, with the Wolverines up 21-7 and the Spartans facing second-and-1 at Michigan’s 24-yard line just after the two-minute warning. Score a quick touchdown and recover an onside kick, and a Spartan comeback would still be possible.
Instead, Bush came after Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi and sacked him for an 11-yard loss. On third-and-long, Lombardi was sacked again. The attempted fourth-down conversion fell short, and the Wolverines bled out the clock on a much-needed win.
In a game where the defense made plays all day long, Bush’s pregame antics were symbolic.
LOW POINT: In the fourth quarter of the Peach Bowl, Florida attempted a punt from its own 20. Hudson came up and blocked it in the end zone for a safety.
Unfortunately for Michigan, all that did was decrease the Gators’ lead from 28 points to 26. And the linebackers were a large reason for the deficit.
Bush had injured his hip in the third quarter of the loss to Ohio State and failed to get medical clearance to participate in bowl practices or play in the game. So he withdrew and focused on preparing for the NFL draft.
The Wolverines’ first taste of life without Bush wasn’t pretty, to put it nicely.
Ross started at middle linebacker in his place, flanked by Hudson and Gil. But where Bush once sped down the field, chasing the quarterback and wreaking havoc on opposing offenses, his replacements looked lost.
Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks noticed the hole and took advantage. Franks not only threw for 173 yards and a touchdown, he was also the Gators’ second-leading rusher with 74 yards and a touchdown — this for a quarterback not exactly known as a dual-threat. Without Bush there to clog the running game, four different Florida players had runs of 30 yards or longer.
Michigan could only watch as the Gators sped away.
THE FUTURE: Losing a talent like Bush — especially one that has started for the past two years — is always going to hurt. But what the Peach Bowl showed is that the Wolverines may miss Bush even more than they thought, for the simple fact that he made the linebackers around him better.
Hudson and Ross are talented, to be clear, and another year of experience can only help. But they’re not the same without Bush in between them. Ross started at middle linebacker in the Peach Bowl, indicating that he may be the future choice at the position — albeit one with a big learning curve.
Gil, fifth-year senior Jordan Glasgow and redshirt sophomore Cam McGrone are others who could fill the vacant linebacker spot, but none incite particular excitement. Newcomer Anthony Solomon was a four-star recruit as an outside linebacker, but as with most freshmen, he is unlikely to contribute right away.
And even if one of them does step up, none have the kind of talent that Bush did, and they won’t be the kind of defensive centerpiece that Bush was.
Only time will tell what the future holds for the linebackers, but of all of the Wolverines’ position groups, it may be the one with the most questions entering 2019. The way the season ended only makes those questions louder.