Change is an apt word for the Wolverines’ defense coming out of the offseason.
Last year, it was Michigan’s lifeblood, finishing as the fourth best in the country and elevating the team to its first College Football Playoff berth. However, a significant portion of that group is no longer suiting up for the Wolverines.
This offseason the defense lost seven starters — including their four leading tacklers. Most noticeably, Michigan must find a way to fill the void left by their defensive anchors Aiden Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who combined for 25 sacks last year. Additionally, former defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald left to take the same position with the Baltimore Ravens. Now, new DC Jesse Minter must prove he can replicate MacDonald’s success with his scheme.
There is reason to wonder if the mass exodus of talent on that side of the ball will lead to some regression. So far, though, coming out of fall camp it seems to be the complete opposite.
“I love this defense,” senior defensive end Mike Morris said. “I feel like there’s nothing too complex about it. I love it because I can understand it better. And I just love the fact that it looks the same, but everyone perceives it differently.”
Morris is one player who the coaching staff is banking on to be a stalwart this season. The Florida product has started just four games to this point, but now he will have an opportunity to be an every-down player after waiting behind a plethora of skillful lineman throughout his career. He has all the tools for a breakout season — especially after putting on 15 pounds in the weight room, bulking up to 292.
While narratives are already crowning Morris as the perfect Hutchinson replacement, this year’s Wolverines are pitching a different storyline altogether.
“There’s no defense running through just a couple of guys,” Morris said. “It’s 11 men on the field, getting the passer or rushing. It’s 11 people working in a cohesive unit to be the best defense it can be.”
Morris credited senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith as the initiator for instilling the unit’s cohesive mantra — but everyone has quickly bought in. Their togetherness has the defense humming in practice, and the offense has started to take notice as well.
“We’ll be in walkthroughs and they’re just screaming at each other, just overly communicating,” senior tight end Luke Schoonmaker said. “Linebackers, secondary, everybody. You can just tell that they’re all bought into it. Of course, you had guys that played great last year and some new guys this year that are getting opportunities. But I think that group just meshes so well together, and it’s gonna be fun to watch.”
Last season, Hutchinson was the unequivocal vocal leader and it worked. Each game he led the charge with his teammates following him down the war path, and his unique flare brought life to a dormant program. However, there are few players at Michigan — let alone the entire country — who can bring what Hutchinson brought to the table last season.
But that’s not a concern for the current Wolverines. This season, the defense is looking to forge its own identity — one where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It may not feature the same number of players with NFL upside or have one alpha who can take the reins. But they can forge a strong cohesiveness, a trait that hasn’t always been present on previous Michigan teams.
A lot of the players can sense it, and Morris knows it:
“We can work together as one unit, instead of individuals.”