After a stellar defensive season, the Michigan football team is looking to retool its defense in the wake of losing NFL-caliber talent in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. To keep pace, the Wolverines will need players to step up — quickly — or they’ll face a steep regression and possible woes as the schedule strengthens.
The newly released depth chart, along with the words of players and coaches, has provided some insight into who will be filling the gaps.
And the first to step on the block is a new face all together: freshman defensive lineman Mason Graham. The 247Sports four-star lineman has impressed Michigan coaches and fellow teammates leading up to the start of the season.
“We’re thinking that in the base package that Mason (is) right now, he’s top of the depth chart as a defensive tackle,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday.
It’s been a trend of proving himself since Graham stepped on campus as an early enrollee in Ann Arbor. In the Maize vs Blue spring game, he stood out as an immediate asset for the Wolverines.
“Mason from the day he got here has been a very solid player,” Harbaugh said. “You saw it in the spring game. He was really highly, highly drafted in that spring game and played very well. So he’s played good, he’s earned it and count on him for a lot of snaps in this first game.”
While that holds true, Graham wasn’t yet seen as a starting-caliber player until far more recently. He’s a freshman, after all, and most need time to develop before they earn significant snaps.
It was in fall camp that Graham fully broke through.
“As (fall camp) progressed, that’s where he moved in the base defense,” Harbaugh said. “He wasn’t the starter going in.”
Junior Kris Jenkins was the starter at the beginning of camp, but he shifted to defensive end while Graham takes over as a base package defensive tackle.
Harbaugh isn’t the only one praising Graham. Fellow defensive teammates have mentioned his progress, and even junior offensive lineman Zak Zinter from the Wolverines’ Joe Moore Award-winning line dropped his name in a list of guys he “doesn’t want to go against.”
Graham isn’t alone in filling Michigan’s defensive line gaps, with Eyabi Anoma stepping up as well.
A recent graduate transfer edge from the University of Tennessee Martin, Anoma is a somewhat wildcard candidate for Michigan. With a history of off-the-field issues, but formidable stats and film, Anoma is an intriguing question mark.
“Eyabi is someone we recruited, I recruited right out of high school, and I always felt like we finished maybe second in that,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve always really enjoyed being around Eyabi. Not aware of the vague off-field issues that you refer to, but as it stands now, he’s a college graduate. Really vouched for by his teammates and just a great guy to be around on a day-to-day basis.”
While less “vague” to the likes of his former schools — Alabama and Houston — which had him suspended and even dismissed for violation of team rules, Harbaugh and the Wolverines believe in Anoma and have put their faith in him to succeed on and off the field.
“Eyabi Anoma has been practicing with the team for about 10 days, 12 days, something like that. He’s been really good,” Harbaugh said. “He’s been a great teammate, and I look forward to seeing what he can do this coming season.
“He’ll be hopefully playing right away in the first game, he’s shown some outstanding assets that he can bring to the team.”
Michigan will need both Anoma and Graham to show the assets they have — and keep improving at their current trajectory — if it will maintain the caliber of defense it boasted last year.
It won’t have the star-power anymore, but if the Wolverine defenders — including the newcomers — step up, Michigan might just succeed in that mission.