The Wolverine

November 2020

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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30 THE WOLVERINE NOVEMBER 2020 BY CHRIS BALAS M any of the concerns about last year's defense centered on the inte- rior defensive line. There were warn- ing signs all over last offseason, from fullback Ben Mason being asked to beef up to add depth to an obvious lack of size (on paper) and an overall dearth of experience. There were ups and downs for the group in 2019, with obvious struggles (again) against Ohio State in particular. Young guys have emerged, however, to shore up the middle and complement U-M's two standout ends, junior Aidan Hutchinson and senior Kwity Paye. "We have a very complete D-line," Hutchinson said on former U-M All-American Jon Jansen's 'In The Trenches' podcast. "We've gotten a lot of reps in the offseason, gotten to train a lot. We've grown a lot of depth, too. [Redshirt junior end] Luiji Vilain and [redshirt sophomore end] Taylor Up- shaw ... [redshirt junior tackle] Dono- van Jeter has had an excellent camp so far, and [sophomore tackle] Chris Hinton is doing great. "[Former walk-on tackle] Jess Spei- ght has been great, too. Ever since he switched to the defensive line, he's been soaring. I feel we're just a com- plete defensive line all around. We all have different skill sets, and that makes us so unique. We're super ready to show what we've got on the field." It all starts with Paye and Hutchin- son, a pair of future NFL ends. This could very well be the last season for both, and the two friends plan to make the most of it. "Aidan Hutchinson, at the anchor position, is playing extremely well," defensive coordinator Don Brown said on the 'Inside Michigan Football' radio show in early October. "He's 6-foot-6, maybe 6-7. … He runs extremely well for his size and can bend, is flexible, is a good pass rusher, is a good spread run defender. He can play the zone read, what we call the bluff concepts, and is just playing at a high, high level." Paye is at the open-side end and continues to show his ability to rush the quarterback. He stood out at an Oct. 3 practice in which he played "tremendously well" according to Brown. "He put his pass-rushing ability on display and really had a good day," the coordi- nator said. "Those two guys … if there's a better tandem, I don't know it. I like my guys." He added that Vilain is playing at a higher level, while freshman Kris Jenkins "is going to be a really good player." "He's a freshman, and you'll hear more about him as we go forward," Brown continued. "Over behind Kw- ity, we have Taylor Upshaw. He's much bigger, in the 256-260 range, while he was probably 230 a year ago. He's able to handle the run game but is still fast and quick, and his pass- rushing ability is outstanding." Fifth-year senior Carlo Kemp is the stalwart on the interior defensive line, and he's continued to add strength and quickness up front. Brown lauded him for his ability to "puncture" offenses by getting off the ball quickly. Redshirt junior Phillip Paea has also improved. "Christopher Hinton, Donovan Jeter, [redshirt sophomore tackle] Ju- lius Welschof and [redshirt freshman tackle] Mazi Smith, those guys have all put themselves in position that you would be comfortable putting them in a game and knowing you're going to get a quality effort," Brown said. "… They're going to know what to do, know how to function, and will go out and play hard and play fast. "If I had to pick one guy up front that I'm excited about, it's this Julius Welschof. He's now 290 pounds, and he runs exactly like he ran when he was 260. We're seeing big things out of him." How he and his teammates hold up inside will once again be a key to the defense's fortunes. ❏ ELITE ON THE EDGES STRONG ON THE OUTSIDE, BEEFING UP INSIDE There are question marks, still, about the interior line, but there's also a lot of talent across the defensive front. Here's what we like and what we'll watch: Biggest Strength: Without question, it's the defensive ends. Junior Aidan Hutchin- son and senior Kwity Paye were very good last year, combining for 118 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. Now they have a chance to be one of the best tandems in the country. Options appear to be emerging behind them, as well, especially red- shirt sophomore Taylor Upshaw. Biggest Concern: The interior line held up well for much of last season, including against some of the more physical teams on the schedule. It was outstanding, for example, in a 10-3 win over Iowa. But can it avoid being pushed off the ball like it was in a blowout loss to Ohio State? That will be the next step for fifth-year senior Carlo Kemp and Co. this year. — Chris Balas DEFENSIVE LINE Senior defensive end Kwity Paye combined with junior end Aidan Hutchinson to tally 118 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks last year. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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