Every day before the Michigan football team starts practice, coach Jim Harbaugh reads off a list of stats. Recently, he noted the team that scores first has a notably higher percent chance of winning. Senior defensive end Kwity Paye listened closely.
“If the defense is up first and if we stop them on that first drive, then that’s kinda like a good indication that we have the upper hand in a way,” Paye said last week. “Our defense has gotta be on our Ps and Qs every time we go out there, make sure we’re doing our job and make sure we’re executing our attacks.”
The number tracks with Michigan’s results in 2019. In their four losses, the Wolverines gave up the first score three times, including an 85-yard score to Alabama on the Crimson Tide’s first play from scrimmage in the Citrus Bowl. In 2020, Paye — a senior who led the team in tackles for loss last season — knows his group will need to do more in this area.
Paye accounted for 6.5 sacks last season, second on the team behind Josh Uche. Now with the New England Patriots, Uche gave defensive coordinator Don Brown a slew of options last year, including a NASCAR package that put Uche and defensive end Aidan Hutchinson on the interior. Following Uche’s departure, Paye and Hutchinson will now shoulder most of the pass-rushing load.
Those two, along with senior defensive tackle Carlo Kemp, are as close to sure things as Brown has on a defense that otherwise abounds with questions. With Ambry Thomas gone, the cornerback depth is an issue. Michigan will need to rely on senior linebacker Josh Ross after an ankle injury kept him from playing more than three games last year. Junior Michael Barrett, meanwhile, steps into the VIPER position having played mostly on special teams in the past.
So asked two weeks ago what the strength of his defense was, it came as no surprise that Brown pointed up front.
“I don’t know if we’re better, just deeper,” Brown said. “We got more guys to choose from. You’ll kinda see that the depth is good, our knowledge is good. We have some young guys, we talked about (defensive tackle) Chris Hinton, we’ve talked about (defensive end) Taylor Upshaw, we’ve talked about (defensive tackle Jess) Speight. He’s just a reliable guy. The guy I’m telling you, (defensive tackle Donovan) Jeter is a different dude. Flat out different dude.
“So and you know the real respected names, Aidan, Kwity, Carlo Kemp. Those guys are there, but we feel like that group has done well.”
That Michigan’s depth pieces — Upshaw, Speight, Jeter, defensive ends Julius Welschof and Luiji Vilain, defensive tackle Mazi Smith — are impressing in practice is a luxury. That the reliability of Hutchinson, Kemp and Paye is almost an afterthought is notable only because it represents three players fulfilling expectations.
Asked further about Hutchinson and Kemp, Brown gave the sort of praise you’d expect of two of the defense’s stars.
On Hutchinson: “He was so tall and everything you thought maybe he might have a little of that stiffness. I cannot believe how athletic this guy is. He’s 6-foot-7 and he runs like a deer. And sky is the limit for this guy.”
On Kemp: “He’s got quick hands and uses them to his advantage. He knows how to penetrate an offensive line. He understands puncture principles, and the bottom line is, that guy has made himself a better football player every year.”
Brown’s calling card as a coordinator has always been the strength of his pass rush. In a year where everything is a question mark, that much looks at least assured.
“Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson, wow, tremendous players and they’re having great camps,” Harbaugh said on his radio show Monday. “I see the identity of the defense in those two.”