Michigan's defense could get a boost in 2021 from sophomore linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green. Alec Cohen/Daily. Buy this photo.

Early returns seem to be positive for the Michigan football team’s new-look defense, and an unheralded linebacker is at the forefront of the unit’s success. 

In a team scrimmage last Wednesday, the Wolverines’ defense allegedly dominated, spurring senior receiver Ronnie Bell to proclaim that the offense “got (their) butts kicked.” 

Whether that’s more of an indictment of the Michigan offense than it is a fair assessment of the defense remains to be seen. But for now, in the anonymity of Schembechler Hall, the Wolverines appear confident in the 3-4 base scheme implemented by new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, a stark shift from the speed-heavy system that Don Brown ran during his five seasons in Ann Arbor. 

“We’re trying to get our best players to match their best players,” linebackers coach George Helow said on Thursday. “Who’s your best blitzers? Who’s your best man-to-man guy? Who’s your best run-stoppers? Hopefully, you have enough packages to be able to provide relief to guys and get your best 11 out on the field at the same time.” 

Perhaps no player has reaped the benefits of Michigan’s revamped system more than Nikhai Hill-Green. On the heels of a strong fall camp, the sophomore linebacker is penciled in as the starter on the weak side, flanking fifth-year senior Josh Ross. 

“He’s earned the right to start,” Helow said. “Does everything you ask him to do. He’s very coachable. He’s playing with his hands, downhill and has a good understanding of the defense and what we’re trying to do.” 

Hill-Green was a non-factor as a freshman last season, appearing in just three games on special teams. The former 3-star recruit tackled the offseason with the goal of becoming a consistent contributor. Those offseason efforts induced what Hill-Green recently referred to as the best camp in his 12-year football career, spanning from pee-wee to college. 

“I really just put my all into this time and really to myself,” Hill-Green said earlier in August. “Really just bet on myself. I put everything into my nutrition, my film study and just being all-in for this team. That is really the biggest difference. I take this so seriously because I just want success for my team. That’s my ultimate goal.” 

Hill-Green’s growth certainly comes at a fortuitous time for the Wolverines. Beyond Ross, Michigan has little depth at linebacker, especially with freshman Junior Colson missing time in camp with injury. 

Last year, then-junior linebacker Michael Barrett started as the viper, a hybrid linebacker/safety position. Yet with Macdonald’s schemes supplanting Brown’s, the Wolverines scrapped the viper in favor of a more traditional two middle linebacker set — opening up an opportunity for Hill-Green. While Barrett deals with the learning curve,  Hill-Green is seeing his off-the-field efforts validated on the gridiron. 

In Saturday’s season-opener against Western Michigan, the Wolverines will, at last, be able to showcase any defensive improvements. For Hill-Green, it presents a chance to further cement a grip on his new role. 

“I’m just hoping to build on it,” Hill-Green said. “Everyone feels good. The energy is high and I feel good.” 

Jared Greenspan can be reached on Twitter at @jared-greenspan