The Wolverine

November 2020

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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NOVEMBER 2020 THE WOLVERINE 31 BY CHRIS BALAS W hen last fall started, linebacker Josh Ross was primed for a breakout redshirt sophomore season. Hailed by defensive coordinator Don Brown as one of the smartest guys he had ever coached, Ross was expected to be a stalwart in the middle of the defense. Three games into the year, however, Ross suffered a serious injury at Wis- consin. Redshirt freshman Cameron McGrone took his place and emerged as one of the best players on the de- fense, improving weekly while finish- ing with 66 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks with a forced fumble. Now that Ross is back and healthy for his redshirt junior campaign, U-M has a talented pair of veterans in the middle who can play either middle or weakside interchangeably — and they can't wait to get started. "Josh and I both know the Mike and Will positions and have played both of them. That's an advantage for us," McGrone said in late Sep- tember. "We also know everything going on around us. No other line- backer corps can say they have line- backers with those abilities. I think that's an advantage. "It's like being out there with my- self sometimes. We look the same, move the same and take the same steps." He's scared for everyone who has to face them, he added half-jokingly. And Brown is excited to unleash the pair, a duo that has a chance to con- tinue the legacy Devin Bush Jr. and others have created at the position in the Jim Harbaugh era. Early practice returns indicate they'll have a great opportunity. "We're very happy with his play, performance," Brown said of Mc- Grone. "He's really learned the de- fense. He really knows what we're do- ing and what everyone else is doing as well. Josh Ross is also an unquestioned leader and playing at very high level." Developing depth will be the key here. Walk-ons and redshirt juniors Adam Shibley and Adam Fakih are battling, and the three players vying for time behind them are young and talented. Nikhai Hill-Green, Kalel Mullings and Cornell Wheeler — who has missed some time due to injury — are in the mix, but they're also all fresh- men. They'll have to grow up quickly. Brown and his linebackers coach, Brian Jean-Mary, will also have to replace a multi-year starter in viper Khaleke Hudson. "We have a good battle going on at viper between [redshirt sophomore] Michael Barrett and [sophomore] An- thony Solomon," Brown said. "We feel good about both of those guys' ability to run, cover, straight line blitz. "… But we also have [freshman Wil- liam] Mohan, nickname 'Apache.' He's got great straight-line pressure ability and has a knack for it as well. It's those three guys [competing], for sure." Barrett probably holds the edge given he's seen some live defensive action — most of Solomon's 11 appear- ances last fall came on special teams — but it's tight heading into October. At the SAM (strongside) position, former fullback and redshirt sopho- more Ben VanSumeren might be one of the biggest surprises in camp in the early going, according to Brown. "He's 250-plus pounds and runs 4.6 [in the 40]," the coach said. "Some guys run fast on the clock, and that's great, but you really don't care in a football game what his clock time is unless it translates to the field. He will run and hit you … I'm happy with his progress. He still has a long way to go and needs time, but we're happy. "[Redshirt freshman] David Ojabo is getting some good work there along with freshman Jaylen Harrell. We have a number of guys working at that posi- tion, but Ben is the slight leader in the clubhouse." It's early, though, and that was be- fore the pads went on. It's now time to separate the men from the boys, and there are plenty of candidates planning on earning their keep on Saturdays. ❏ THE MIDDLE OF THE DEFENSE BLENDS OLD AND NEW LINEBACKERS Redshirt junior Josh Ross ranked fourth on the team with 61 tackles and was named honor- able mention All-Big Ten in 2018, but was limited to just four games and redshirted last season. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN STRONG IN THE MIDDLE, BUT … As it is every year, there will be turnover on the Michigan defense, including a few linebackers that have moved on to the NFL. And as usual, coordinator Don Brown doesn't seem concerned. Here's a look at a big plus and a question mark in the middle of the defense: Biggest Strength: Michigan's inside tandem of redshirt sophomore Cameron McGrone and redshirt junior Josh Ross has a wealth of experience and might be as talented as any linebacker duo in the conference. Both have earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors, and Ross is primed for a big comeback after redshirting last season due to injury. Biggest Concern: There's plenty of talent among the starting three, but is there enough depth? The middle linebacker backups will likely be freshmen, and while starting viper candidates Michael Barrett and Anthony Solomon are both talented, neither is proven. Several young guys are going to have to grow up quickly, and there could be a problem if a starter or two goes down or gets caught up in COVID protocols. — Chris Balas

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