Entering Saturday, there was no telling what Michigan’s defense might look like.
After last year’s dominant season, the Wolverines lost NFL-caliber talents in Aidan Hutchinson, Davido Ojabo and Dax Hill, while defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald departed to assume the same role for the Baltimore Ravens. There were questions all offseason about how Michigan would plug all the holes in its roster.
There’s good reason to assume the defense would fall off. But for at least one game, the defense — with its line at the forefront — impressed.
“There’s been a lot of talk about how we lost a lot of guys,” sophomore linebacker Junior Colson said. “I think we proved that we can still be dominant without them, we can still bring pressure, we can still sack the quarterback, we can still just dominate in all phases.”
And that they did. The Wolverines totaled a whopping seven sacks, eleven tackles for loss and two forced turnovers, including a scoop-and-score by senior cornerback D.J. Turner. And it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Michigan’s defense gave up any points, a late 34-yard passing touchdown against freshman defensive back Will Johnson.
While Colorado State might not be the most talented opponent, the numbers still speak for themselves — the Wolverines had their way with the Rams.
It was a strong showing at all three levels, but Michigan’s success started in the trenches.
“We have so many edges and so many different guys at d-line who can do great things for this football team,” senior edge rusher Mike Morris said. “ … We just had, I think, eight guys rotating at one point, and everybody ate. So yeah, I feel like we bring a lot of versatility and depth to each and every game.”
The line generated constant pressure on Colorado State’s quarterback, Clay Millen, and met the Rams’ running backs near the line of scrimmage consistently. And it did so with a revolving cast of characters.
Morris provided expected production, as did senior defensive tackle and captain, Mazi Smith. But many other faces showed their worth on Saturday, too.
Junior edge rusher Jaylen Harrell notched four tackles and half a sack, newcomer Eyabi Anoma had a sack of his own — on the first play the graduate transfer saw the field — and edge rusher Derrick Moore didn’t find himself with a gaudy stat line, but showed he deserves to see the field as a true freshman.
“Derrick Moore surprised all of us because he’s a big guy just coming in,” Morris said. “He looked like us and he just got there in January, so I was very surprised by him. And everything related to the field as well. Everything transferred to the field. … (and) honestly, I had no idea what was going on with (Anoma), but I accepted him with open arms — I’m sure the whole edge room did — and today he showed us what he can bring to our team.”
The amount of pressure being generated, especially coming from a number of different players, was impressive. Coming off a season where the majority of pressures were generated by two players in particular — Hutchinson and Ojabo — it was unknown who would step up and produce.
Throughout camp, players and coaches alike preached a “no star” defense that would create production from everywhere, but there was no game proof to back that up. After one game, there’s some evidence they might be telling the truth.
“I feel like as an edge room and as a d-line in total, we put a chip on our shoulder because (Hutchinson and Ojabo’s) absence,” Morris said. “Everybody thought we weren’t going to be as good because their absence. …people come and go out of every school all the time. But now it’s like, ’Does Michigan have a guy?’ No, we have multiple.”
Whether the defensive line, and the rest of the defense, continues to produce at the same clip is a question better left for the future. But at least for now, the Wolverines have walked the walk, and they’re only focused on improving.
“We gave up a touchdown,” Turner said. “There’s always stuff to clean up.”