All offseason, the hype surrounding Michigan has been a product of its offensive promise. The phrase at the core of that hype, of course, has been Josh Gattis’ mantra of “speed in space.”
Saturday night against Middle Tennessee State, Don Brown made sure his defense didn’t get left behind, adding speed with regular NASCAR packages — looks with four defensive ends.
A year ago, the Wolverines never needed the look to generate pressure. Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary, with the occasional third-down appearance from Josh Uche, filled that task with ease.
But with Winovich and Gary gone, Michigan’s strength at defensive end lies in its depth. Sophomore Aidan Hutchinson and junior Kwity Paye are the starters, but Uche — typically a linebacker — can slot in as an edge rusher. Behind them, senior Michael Danna, a transfer from Central Michigan, brings a skillset that produced the nation’s second-highest success rate on pass rushes in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus.
So when Brown looked at the personnel in front of him, his solution became clear.
“When you realize you got guys you can run and you want all of them on the field, that’s when we’re like, ‘We got to get them on the field,’ ” said defensive line coach Shaun Nua. “So coach Brown does a great job of making sure that we identify good players, their strengths and design packages to get them on.”
Saturday, the look’s first appearance brought a mix of confusion and intrigue — the sight of Uche and Hutchinson’s speed on the interior makes that inevitable. On the MTSU offensive line, confusion prevailed, with a pulling guard leaving a gaping hole for fifth-year senior linebacker Jordan Glasgow to blast through.
After one NASCAR package, MTSU’s statline against it: one sack, negative-eight yards.
The next time the Wolverines ran it, they nearly added a safety to the tally, as a potential hold on Uche in the end zone went uncalled. Midway through the third quarter — the package’s fifth usage — it forced MTSU quarterback Asher O’Hara into a lame-duck pass that senior cornerback Lavert Hill dropped with 20 yards of open field between him and the end zone.
Despite the miscues, Michigan’s final statline on its NASCAR packages that weren’t nullified by penalties: seven plays, one sack, 3-for-6 passing, 10 yards.
“It just adds pressure to the quarterback and something for the other team to think about,” Glasgow said. “And when you think about it, we have a lot of other people that could fill the roles of everyone in that package, or anyone on the field at that time.”
For now, the package is largely constrained to 3rd-and-long situations because of the speed the defensive ends provide, but when asked about the possibility of using it on other downs and distances, Nua said: “Coach Brown likes to call it whenever, we just got to be ready.”
The one time Michigan used it in another situation Saturday — 2nd-and-9 at midfield — Uche and Paye jumped offside, all the defensive ends stopped and MTSU picked up an easy first down. Those are the unavoidable miscues that will take more than a week to iron out.
But the tape is resoundingly positive. And this week, the assessment at Schembechler Hall has followed suit.
“It’s great cause it’s a lot of quickness and speed on that front so we can attack every position on the offensive line,” Danna said. “And we got a whole lot more of that coming this season, so I’m excited.”