At the front of Michigan’s defense, defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye combine for one of the Big Ten’s best returning pass rushing duos, with 10 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss between them in 2019.
At the back, there’s a secondary marred by inexperience. Senior safety Brad Hawkins, the lone returning starter, has been inconsistent in his two years as a first-teamer. Sophomores D.J. Turner and Jalen Perry, both likely starters at cornerback, have yet to see game action on defense.
To surmise: Michigan’s pass rush is good. Its secondary is a work in progress. Between them may lie the key to Don Brown’s defensive unit in 2020.
As Michigan learned in 2016 and 2018, an elite linebacker corps can work wonders for a defense. In 2016 — Brown’s first year in Ann Arbor — Ben Gedeon, Mike McCray and Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers combined for 233 tackles. Two years later, Devin Bush was a Butkus Award finalist, while then-sophomore Josh Ross and Khaleke Hudson completed a well-rounded trio.
In those two years, Michigan finished first and second in the country in total defense. Last year, it ranked 11th. And in a season when the Wolverines have to replace eight offensive starters, they’ll need more out of Brown’s unit to compete in the Big Ten.
Which is why, last week, it was reassuring to hear the words of Ross and junior linebacker Cam McGrone.
“My expectation is we’re gonna be the best linebacker group in the country,” Ross said in a Zoom call with local media.
A few days later, McGrone concurred. “I totally agree with that statement,” he said. “I feel like we have the best combination of speed and physicality.”
That’s a unique proclamation, even amid the unbridled hype of a preseason press conference.
That caveat is important — it’s easy to exude confidence when you haven’t yet had to prove it. Just recall the press conference last year when Brown proclaimed, “I’ve been writing Wisconsin cards and I’ve kinda been ‘Woohoowoo!’ ” a week before giving up 28 points and 312 yards before halftime.
But McGrone and Ross combine for a fascinating duo. In McGrone, Michigan has its successor to Bush, even if he’s unlikely to repeat Bush’s All-American 2018 campaign.
His ability to make sideline-to-sideline plays is special. If you don’t believe me, just watch:
Here’s Bush making a similar play — the type of play that made him an All-American and first-round pick — against SMU the year before:
McGrone hasn’t shown that he can make those plays as often as Bush did. He’s also less consistent in pass coverage and finished last season with 2.5 sacks compared to Bush’s 4.5 in 2018 and 5.5 in 2017.
But McGrone doesn’t need to be Bush to be a star at the center of Michigan’s defense. And this season, he’ll have something he’s never had beside him: a proven linebacker with 20 career starts.
Ross, who started alongside Bush in 2018, started three games at middle linebacker a season ago before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. At the time, that gave McGrone the opportunity to slide into Michigan’s starting defense.
Now, McGrone has starting experience to pair with Ross’s ability to play as the Mike or Will linebacker — a versatility the Wolverines didn’t have last year with Will linebacker Jordan Glasgow proving to be a liability against tight ends in pass coverage.
“Learning both positions is so helpful,” Ross said. “Not only for our defense but for me especially, just knowing what’s going on from both linebacker positions, knowing where my help’s coming from the backend and knowing what the front’s doing on both sides. It’s very helpful and I really feel like it’s going to benefit our defense this year for sure.”
The weakness of Michigan’s linebacker corps — at least as far as experience — will be at the VIPER role that Brown employs as a mechanism of bridging his front seven and secondary. Following the departure of three-year starter Khaleke Hudson, junior Michael Barrett will likely assume that position.
Despite Barrett only having two career appearances on defense, McGrone is confident he will fill in seamlessly.
“He’s definitely more than ready physically and mentally,” McGrone said. “He’s been there. Last year, he was itching to get in, just waiting his turn. Now it’s finally his turn so he’s ready to go off.”
If Barrett can come close to matching Hudson’s production, Brown might just have his third elite linebacker group in five years. And if that happens, history shows that the rest of Michigan’s defense will follow.
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