On Saturday, Michigan fans got their first glimpse into what the Wolverines’ pass rush sans Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo will look like.
Questions swirled around how the team would replicate the star duo’s production, and it was fair to wonder whether a “no-star defense” mantra was a softer way to mask the void of talent on the roster.
But at least through Week One, the unit tempered those worries. Against Colorado State, Michigan racked up seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss and a forced fumble, while anchoring a defense that surrendered just seven points.
Living up to their billing, there wasn’t one individual who stole the show on defense — it was a collective effort with nine different players recording at least half a sack.
For Michigan defensive line coach Mike Elston, a revolving door of linemen is exactly what he envisioned.
“We’re doing some different things up front to create some disruption and pressure,” Elston said Wednesday. “Hopefully, that continues to carry on and we’ll continue to grow those things. It’s a huge challenge to replace (Hutchinson and Ojabo) but the challenge is there and I think that, as a staff, we’ve handled it really well. And I think it’s only going to get better as we move forward.”
Elston is a newcomer to the defensive coaching staff this season, replacing former coach Shaun Nua. He didn’t necessarily inherit a line littered with five star recruits, but he does have the luxury of options:
There are upperclassmen such as seniors Mazi Smith and Mike Morris, who are each stepping into larger roles this season. The team also features newcomers like freshmen Mason Graham and Derrick Moore, who will see regular playing time despite their inexperience. Graduate Eyabi Anoma, who transferred into the program just a few weeks ago, already made an impact with a sack on his very first play.
Elston’s unit has a variety of serviceable players who can get after the quarterback. He can constantly rotate through 10-12 different guys — and, most importantly, can keep his troops humming in the trenches throughout the game.
“I love doing that,” Elston said of frequent substitutions. “I think that keeps guys fresh. I think production goes up for guys that are able to go out there and know they’re gonna play four or five plays and then when the drive extends we can get them out.”
That freshness was evident on Saturday, as the Wolverines kept the pressure on the Rams — flying to the ball and never letting long drives develop. Despite the dominant nature of the win, Elston wanted more from his unit, perhaps with an eye towards the tougher competition that awaits.
“Overall, I think we can be more disruptive in pass rush,” Elston said. “I think we left a lot of production on the field. We didn’t finish a couple moves. We fell off the quarterback… So, we’d love to see improvements in those areas in Week Two and moving on.”
The other added benefit of a defensive rotation is that it helps mitigate the injury factor. Given the nature of football, and especially the violence that occurs along the line, it’s fair to assume the pass rushing unit won’t remain 100% healthy forever.
But with the amount of players receiving in-game experience — Elston shouted out 14 different ones during his press conference — there are more than enough players to pickup the slack if someone goes down.
Entering the season, there were a lot of players along the defensive line who were expected to see playing time, but whether the unit could produce, without a household name leading the way, remained unclear.
With this rotational approach, though, Elston believes he’s found a way to maximize their potential. While it worked for one game, having players continue to buy in is key for replicating last year’s success.
“We got a lot of guys that can play winning football,” Elston said. “We’re trying to build guys that can play championship level football.”