There are two NFL-sized holes along the Michigan football team’s defensive line, glaring voids to be filled with no clear-cut replacements.
As Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo — both All-American edge rushers last season — set off for the NFL, they also leave an abundance of opportunity in their wake.
“Everybody in this group is realizing that,” junior defensive end Mike Morris said Monday. “Like, we need to step up, because we have to cover for two guys who made a lot of production last year. So everyone’s starting to realize that and starting to step up in their own way.”
Morris — who appeared in 14 games and drew four starts last season — feels that effort starts with him.
“I feel like I have no choice,” Morris said, his voice stern and confident. “You know, who else is it going to be? I feel like I’m holding myself to a standard. And it’s going to be me.
“… I want it to be me. I want to put myself in a position to make that play. I want to be that guy.”
Morris spent the early stages of the offseason prepping for his new role, less so preparing his body than adjusting his mental state. He changed his mentality, commencing the shift from an auxiliary piece who could rely on Hutchinson and Ojabo to make an impact play to someone who will need to carry the load himself.
Morris says the refined mentality will position himself to “take over the game.” According to those around him, he’s well on his way to doing just that.
“Mike Morris could be the next Aidan Hutchinson (or) Ojabo,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh waxed on March 7.
Added junior defensive tackle Mazi Smith: “Great player. Can play anywhere across the line, especially when he puts his mind to it. He’s going to have a great year — a great year.”
Over the past decade, Michigan has churned out edge rushers like a high-octane factory. Such a pipeline pays immediate dividends — through on-field production and NFL pedigrees — but also plays an equally important role behind the scenes. Players like Morris can hone their craft under the tutelage of future pros, biding their time until it becomes their opportunity to step into the limelight.
During his freshman season in 2019, Morris did not see game action, buried behind the likes of Kwity Paye, Josh Uche and Mike Danna on the depth chart.
“It was definitely hard to take the backseat, but it was something that had to be done,” Morris says now, benefitting from three years of hindsight. “And I feel like it’s gonna be part of my story going forward. Me taking a step back and realizing like, I can do other things for the team — that definitely advanced my game to another level.”
Morris embraced his versatility, molding his body to play both inside and along the edge, squeezing as much playing time as possible. He put in extra hours in the film room, studying a variety of different players along the line to master different playstyles. And, in spite of the logjam in the trenches, Morris found his way onto the field and produced, making 17 total tackles in 2021.
“I could have been that guy like, ‘No, I don’t want to do that,’ ” Morris said. “… It made me just question myself and question what I wanted to do as a player and had to check my ego and just open my eyes.”
Now, seasoned and battle-tested, Morris is finally ready to assume the role that his predecessors trained him for.
Because in his eyes, there’s no longer an alternative.