In order to replace all but one starter from last year’s defensive unit, the No. 17 Michigan football team went through a heated competition at nearly every position.
As the Wolverines’ 2017 season now approaches its sixth week, that competition is still in full swing. But rather than at each specific position, the competition has moved between the position groups.
The defensive line, linebackers and secondary have all played a role in Michigan becoming the No. 1 overall defense in the country in their own unique ways. From putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks to stopping power run games to neutralizing fluid pass attacks, each specific unit has come into its own despite replacing so many components of last year’s team.
Up until the Michigan State game, the linebacker core had a pretty tight hold on the top spot.
Fifth-year senior Mike McCray, the sole returning starter, has led the unit to even greater heights in his final season as a Wolverine. He recorded a career-high 11 tackles as well as two tackles-for-loss against Air Force en route to a spot in the Big Ten Defensive Team of the Week.
McCray has partnered with sophomore Devin Bush Jr., who has emerged as a consistent threat against both opposing running and passing games. He has racked up 41 tackles, six tackles-for-loss, five sacks and four pass breakups in just five games this season. Last week, Bush was added to the Chuck Bednarik Award watch list, which honors the best defensive player in the nation.
The unit has also received standout contributions from sophomore Khaleke Hudson, who now occupies the VIPER role made famous by former Wolverine Jabrill Peppers. Hudson made his first career interception against Air Force, along with five tackles and a career-high three pass breakups. Just two other Michigan players have a pick to their names.
The defensive line has given the linebackers a run for their money, though. And against the Spartans, the D-line made its strongest case yet.
The trio of fifth-year tackle Maurice Hurst, redshirt junior end Chase Winovich and sophomore end Rashan Gary had arguably their best performance of the season individually and collectively despite the loss. Defensive line coach Greg Mattison took the time Wednesday to praise each of the three for their respective performances on Saturday.
In his breakout game of the year, Hurst tallied 10 tackles with a whopping 3.5 for loss in the middle.
“(He) had a really good ball game,” Mattison said. “(He) has done some really, really good things. Obviously, as a senior, in big games, you want to play your best. He’s been practicing that way to do it, and I was happy for him.
“He’s capable of doing that a lot this year. He’s very explosive. The thing I’m proud of is that he’s been a good leader and he’s worked very, very hard. And the guys look up to him and you want guys like that to have the reward of playing like that.”
Winovich, who was another midseason addition to the Bednarik Award watch list after earning Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week honors, made nine tackles and notched one quarterback hit from the outside.
“There was a play in that Michigan State game — when he broke the run,” Mattison said. “(He) ran around the entire defense and ended up making the tackle 50 yards downfield. And there were secondary guys running as hard as they could.
“It’s just Chase’s burning desire to be the best he can be.”
Gary, who — along with Hurst — had already been named to the Bednarik Award watch list, recorded eight tackles and another quarterback hit from the edge.
“I’m very proud of Rashan because he continues to try to work on his technique and continues to try to do what the defense asks him to do,” Mattison said. “And great things are going to happen because of that.
“He’s right down the middle of a tight end, whereas you see (Hurst) is shaded on a guard, you see the nose is shaded on a guard and (Winovich) is shaded on a tackle, so you already have the edge. … Some guys at some programs would complain about that. He doesn’t. He just plays the defense like it’s supposed to be played.”
While Mattison lauded his unit, linebackers coach Chris Partridge expressed less enthusiasm about his.
“We were okay — not our best performance — but again, (we) didn’t do things to win the game.”
Almost halfway through the 2017 season, the two position groups are still battling it out on a weekly basis. Though the defensive line has now stepped into the driver’s seat, the ongoing competition has ultimately helped lead the defense to the top spot overall.