In all aspects of the game, Michigan linebackers coach George Helow has high expectations for his unit.
“We’re chasing perfection every day,” Helow said Wednesday. “And what people say outside that building doesn’t matter to us and it doesn’t affect us.”
The Wolverines’ defense hasn’t been perfect, but it’s certainly held tough. Through five games, the unit is surrendering just 284.6 yards and 12.8 points per game — numbers good for ninth- and fifth-best in the country, respectively. Competition caveats aside, the improvement over last season’s abysmal unit, which gave up 434.3 yards and 34.5 points per game, is nothing short of remarkable.
Much of that progress is borne from the linebackers. Under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, they’ve been asked to make plays more beneficial to their skillset. Instead of lockdown pass coverage and sideline-to-sideline pursuits, they’re staying toward the middle, firing gaps and shutting down run plays.
The greatest beneficiaries of the system are visible on virtually every down. Fifth-year linebacker Josh Ross has anchored the run defense at MIKE, while senior Aidan Hutchinson has grown into possibly the best edge rusher in the country. Scheming around one of those two would be hard enough for opposing offenses; dealing with both is a nightmare.
Still, two players can’t explain the defense’s rapid growth this season. To move from 87th to ninth in total defense in one offseason takes vast improvement up and down the depth chart.
That’s exactly what the Wolverines have gotten out of their depth linebackers, especially from sophomore Nikhai Hill-Green. After appearing in just three games on special teams last year, Hill-Green has emerged as a staple of Michigan’s defense so far, registering 23 tackles — third best on the team — including eight against Rutgers, when Ross left in the first half with an injury.
Helow emphasized how Ross has gotten quicker as his understanding of the game has improved, but that same impact is also visible with Hill-Green. Each game, he appears more confident than the last, and as that trend keeps up, he should continue to grow as a run-stopper this season and beyond.
“He’s really changed his body in the offseason,” Helow said. “I think Nikhai weighed like 241 pounds. He got with Abigail (O’Connor), our nutritionist, this offseason. He committed to a plan that we had for him this offseason, stuck with the plan and changed his body — lost about 15 pounds and put on a lot of good muscle weight.”
Freshman linebacker Junior Colson has also been surprisingly consistent this season. Though not as effective as a true run-stopper compared to Ross or Hill-Green, Colson’s athleticism makes him a valuable asset in passing situations. As a result, Helow and Macdonald like to rotate him in on third downs.
Despite his relative lack of experience, Colson’s managed to avoid the mistakes — like blown coverages or over-aggression on run plays — that tend to plague young linebackers. Especially with Nebraska and dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez on deck, his combination of athleticism and natural football instincts should be a major boost for the Wolverines’ defense.
“Junior has been doing everything that we ask him to do,” Helow said. “Of course, he’s got the size, the speed, the athletic ability. It’s not easy for a true freshman to go in and play the volume of snaps that he’s been playing, but Junior’s not a flincher.”
Barring any injuries, Ross and Hutchinson will remain the greatest weapons for opposing offenses to deal with. And even if they can effectively scheme around them, the alternatives in Michigan’s linebacker corps aren’t too significant of a downgrade.
Realistically, the Wolverines won’t achieve the perfection Helow’s hoping for. But if they continue to progress as they have, they’ll get pretty darn close.