Midway through his session with the media Monday afternoon, a reporter asked Josh Uche about the potential of coming back for a fifth year. Because he played just four games in 2016, his freshman year, Uche could conceivably redshirt retroactively.
It seemed he hadn’t considered the scenario.
“I don’t know how that rule works,” Uche said. “I don’t know if it’s retroactive or anything like that, so that's just something I’m gonna have to revisit at the end of the season.”
If Uche has thought at all about the next level, that’s the biggest hint he gave. This is the first year the outside linebacker has been an every-down player for Michigan — his four years in Ann Arbor have progressed with the steady, upward slope that, in theory, should apply to most college athletes but rarely does.
After that freshman year in which he barely played, Uche worked his way into the special teams rotation sophomore year and got in at linebacker slightly more often. Last year, he burst onto the scene as a third-down pass rusher, leading the team with seven sacks and making impact plays with eyebrow-raising efficiency. Coming into this year, he was asked to step into a more comprehensive role, trying to replicate his impression on games in 2018 over a longer, sustained period of time.
He’s done it seamlessly.
“Being a full-time player as a linebacker has required him to drop in coverage and he’s done that and improved on those skills,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “The pass rushing is something that he loves and is really good at.”
On Saturday, that’s where Uche had the most impact. Early in the game, he trucked an offensive tackle and chased Illinois quarterback Matt Robinson into an intentional grounding penalty that killed a drive. Later in the fourth quarter, with the Illini clinging to their last hopes, Uche bull-rushed the left tackle and took down Robinson. In between, he had another sack and three more tackles for loss, enough for Harbaugh to call him one of his defensive players of the game.
It’s all part of that progression — a pass-rushing toolbox Uche can now put on full display.
“He has speed, he has a counter to that,” Harbaugh said. “He’s got a bull rush. He’s also incorporated a speed to power move, where he shows speed around the edge and switches to power on the tackles. And then he has a touch and go omove, where he touches and makes it look like a bull and it turns out to speed.”
Uche contributing at a high level now is more important than ever because, unlike last year, Michigan doesn’t have Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich to fall back on. Where in 2018, Uche’s production felt like a bonus, it’s now a necessity.
For Uche — and his teammates — it also feels like an inevitability.
“I’ve always believed in, personally, my own talents,” Uche said. “I’ve always felt that I was the best at anything I did. I always envisioned myself having success or being successful. So yeah, honestly, as soon as I stepped foot on this campus, I imagined myself having success. If you don’t believe in yourself, who else will?”
Khaleke Hudson, Uche’s roommate and one of his closest friends on the team, talks to Uche all the time about life and about making their families proud. Last year was when Hudson started to see things click into place for Uche. “But I could say everybody on the defense really knew what he was able to do (before),” Hudson said.
Just before Hudson spoke, Uche was out in front of everyone, full of confidence — direct, not brash. A key cog and loud voice on a defense that got barraged with criticism last month when Wisconsin hung 35 on the Wolverines in Madison, Uche spoke of misconceptions in the media and motivations on the team.
“You guys were saying we can’t stop the run and we’re soft and this and that,” Uche said. “That’s just, we’ve kind of framed that in our minds. And that’s given us a lot of motivation to work hard and that underdog mentality is almost inflamed.”
That underdog mentality seems to have paid off — for now, at least, Michigan is back to third in defensive SP+. Heading into two straight top-10 matchups, the biggest questions for the Wolverines no longer surround the defense, which has come up clutch in two straight games.
Uche knows what it means if they can do it again, this time against Penn State and Notre Dame.
“It’s big-time now. It’s prime time television,” Uche said. “We got a chance to be legendary.”