When linebackers Noah Furbush and Josh Uche faced reporters Tuesday afternoon, they largely fielded questions about newly-minted starting quarterback Shea Patterson, the development of the offense, the itch to finish the dog days of camp and play a competitive game.
That’s because, in terms of the linebacking corps, there aren’t many questions to ask. They answered most a year ago.
The group — led by 2017 All-Big Ten selections Khaleke Hudson and Devin Bush — will undoubtedly be one of the pillars of this team. Last season, Bush and Hudson combined for 27 tackles-for-loss and 13 sacks, spearheading the speedy, aggressive group that defensive coordinator Don Brown champions.
That duo is back, Hudson at VIPER and Bush at SAM linebacker, and sniffing potential All-American-level accolades and serious NFL Draft buzz. Linebackers coach Al Washington thinks they’ll be even better this season.
“Experience is probably the most important quality in any endeavor,” Washington said Tuesday. “They’re going to anticipate things. The game will slow down for them. In terms of what we’re doing, what we’re calling, they kind of have a greater understanding of the nuances that are involved in it.”
But alongside them lies the one true question left unanswered: who will replace Mike McCray at the WILL linebacker. Sophomore Josh Ross and junior Devin Gil remain locked in what Don Brown called a “fistfight” last week. Each has played sparingly in their careers to this point.
Washington did heap the coveted Don Brown “dude” moniker on Gil, who he added was “very smart, very football smart” and “understands the nuances naturally,” but deferred to Brown on who might be the leader right now.
Washington says, though, that when the tape comes on, the level of play stays consistent.
“If you were to sit and watch tape, sometimes you’ve got to look and see who’s actually in there because the performance is pretty consistent,” Washington said. “And that’s not giving you some generic answer, that’s sincerely what’s going on.”
While that may be the case, and while Ross and Gil will likely get their share of opportunities, only one will trot out with the starting unit on September 1.
Meanwhile, Uche — a natural SAM — isn’t waiting for a spot to open up that suits him. In his two years at Michigan, Uche has played in just five games and has only one sack. He wants to play and has made that clear both in his words and actions.
When Uche told Brown he wanted to play more, Brown offered a simple solution.
He told me, ‘If you want playing time, you gotta go earn it,’ ” Uche recalled. “ ‘Show me that you deserve it.’ ”
“ ‘That’s all you had to say,’ ” Uche responded. Then he put his head down and kept it down.
Since then, by all accounts from his teammates, coaching staff and himself, Uche has done just that. He created a checklist of goals he wanted to accomplish. He started hanging around Chris Evans and Khaleke Hudson, absorbing all he could “just trying to be around some greatness.” One of the first goals on that list was to reach 240 pounds — “boom,” he says, with measured self-satisfaction.
“My pass rush got a lot better working with Coach Al,” Uche said. “My linebacker stuff got way better than anything else just working with all the other coaches.”
He’s a different player. To his credit, everyone else has already taken notice.
“He’s one of the most gifted in terms of edge rushers that I’ve ever been around,” Washington said. … “The kid is different, man. He’s explosive. He’s better when being confronted. With him, he was an edge rusher in high school — playing in a 2-point stance for anybody is different. But he’s made strides, man. Really proud of that kid.
“When you watch the tape, he’ll jump off. He’s very dynamic in that way. And he’s worked his tail off every way.”
When asked for a player who has stood out in camp, Furbush did not hesitate.
“You can tell there’s just a determination from Josh,” Furbush said. “He really wants to be great — he wants to be a great pass rusher.”
Uche neglected to reveal the rest of his checklist. “Slowly but surely,” he said, “I’m hitting those goals.”
When he speaks, there’s a hint of measured animosity. It hardly seems far-fetched to posit that one of those goals is to make an impact against Notre Dame. He doesn’t listen to the hype “because hype won’t get you paid or put food in your stomach.” But the hype just keeps following him anyway. He’s not waiting for a role to fall into his lap anymore. He’s going to get an opportunity. He knows it. He’s itching for it.
A reporter asks Uche if there’s any extra motivation with opening the year against a rival.
“It doesn’t matter who it is, to be honest with you,” Uche said. “The first person we see, we’re hitting them out of the gates.”