In Uche’s absence, Michigan plans to retool pass rush

Thursday, May 21, 2020 - 2:27pm

Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson return as experienced members of the pass rush.

Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson return as experienced members of the pass rush. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

Just under a month ago, the New England Patriots swooped up Josh Uche in the second round of the NFL Draft. Michigan’s do-it-all pass rusher was officially gone, and without a spring season, there was little clarity on who would replace him.

But as he detailed in a Zoom call with local reporters Thursday morning, Don Brown has some ideas.

Last year, in order to get Uche on the field, Brown frequently showcased 3-4 looks on second and third down. This year, Brown plans to run more plays from a four-down base and utilize a variety of players in different packages that play to their strengths. The catch? Without a spring season to evaluate, he’s not yet sure what those packages will look like.

“It’s like, if we had gotten through spring we’d already have those answers, so when we’ve done preseason we have to have those answers,” Brown said. “But I’m very excited about, when you can say multiple guys have a chance to impact you in a pass-rush scenario, that’s a good thing.”

In particular, Brown praised senior Luiji Vilain, sophomore David Ojabo and junior Taylor Upshaw as players who could impact the pass rush in 2020. That’s along with defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye — both 2019 starters primed to anchor a young defensive line.

Still, Brown knows replacing Uche’s production is no easy task. In 2019, Uche pressured the quarterback on 26 percent of pass-rush snaps. There likely isn’t a single person on the 2020 roster who can replicate that — a testament to Uche’s skill more than the others’ shortfalls.

“Unlike a year ago when Uche was an internal blitzer, he’s an external blitzer, he could do all those things as a standup two-point stance defensive end, you may have to divide that work between one or two guys because one guy may be great on the edge, the other may be great in short-area quickness and change of direction scenarios, might be better,” Brown said. “And those are the things that we’re waiting just to find out and see how that plays out.”

Despite the uncertainty, Brown is confident. Ojabo, who grew up in Nigeria and Scotland and didn’t begin playing football until his junior year of high school, was always going to face a steeper learning curve, but Brown sees in him many of Uche’s traits. Upshaw, who has an NFL pedigree, saw limited reps last year and became someone Brown felt strongly about. Vilain — who didn’t see the field his first two seasons with the program due to injury — was primed for a bigger role last year but saw fewer opportunities after the addition of graduate transfer Michael Danna.

“I go back and watch Luiji (Vilain) play last year at times,” Brown said. “And … the bottom line is, it’s his time now and he’ll have an opportunity to prove what he can do, and I think we’re gonna get productive, solid play out of him as well.”

Brown has come to accept that he won’t be able to see exactly what he has until the team begins fall camp — something that is likely still a few months off. But when he looks at the tape, he’s able to dream of the pass rush’s potential, with or without Uche.