The Wolverine

May 2021 Issue

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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MAY 2021 THE WOLVERINE 37 BY CHRIS BALAS F ormer Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown is now at Arizona, and Jim Harbaugh has chosen to start anew with former Baltimore Ravens assistant Mike Macdonald … with a little help from his friends. Former Dallas Cowboys assistant Maurice Linguist will co-coordinate, and only line coach Shaun Nua returns from last year's staff on the defensive side of the ball. Here are five big questions Mac- donald and Co. will need to answer before or during the season to give the defense a shot to help win games: WHERE WILL THE PASS RUSH COME FROM? Defensive end Kwity Paye had the highest pass rush win rate of any player in the Big Ten in 2020 at just over 25 percent according to Pro Foot- ball Focus, yet he finished with only two sacks and five quarterback hur- ries in five games. The ends and Sams (outside line- backers over the tight end) will be the ones asked to get to the quarterback consistently, and redshirt sophomore end Taylor Upshaw recently said he, junior Aidan Hutchinson, redshirt freshman Mike Morris and freshman Braiden McGregor were the ends in that scenario, while redshirt freshman David Ojabo and frosh Jaylen Harrell were manning the Sam spot. The ends are often in a stand-up position, he noted. "I'm mainly going to be rushing, but there's also dropping [into cover- age], too," he said. "It's like a pass rush [position], but I also still get in a three-point stance. I still mix it up, but it's a [primarily] stand-up edge position. "The position we play allows us to make a lot of plays. We're going to have to affect the game a lot, and I have big expectations for myself and my teammates." The potential problem is that other than Hutchinson — who missed most of last season with a broken ankle — there isn't much experience or proof that any of them can provide pres- sure. But recently graduated tackle Carlo Kemp has seen them up close, and he believes they'll be up to the task. "They're retaining a lot of very good players that not only played a season, but have two seasons under their belt," Kemp said. "Of course, you've got Aidan Hutchinson, who we all know what a great player he is, but it's going to be awesome to see … a lot of people don't know all the behind-the-scenes work he does as a leader and a captain for this team. "… And then you've got players like Taylor Upshaw who got to step into that role last year with Aidan go- ing down with an injury. With him getting more games under his belt and him being able to play in games and make big plays for us last year, it's really going to help him moving forward." With the move to a 3-4 base, a lot of the pass rush responsibility will fall to him and his cohorts on the edges. CAN THE FRONT SEVEN STOP THE RUN? This might be the most important question, and it's still fair to wonder if there's enough beef up front — and quality play at the next level, line- backer — to keep better offensive lines from moving the ball on the ground. Wisconsin, for example, had its way with the Wolverines' front seven the last two years, rushing for an absurd 359 yards two years ago in a 35-14 vic- tory and 341 last year in a 49-11 win in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines were 10th in the conference in overall rush defense, al- lowing 178.8 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry in failing to hold the line of scrimmage far too often. The linebackers overran plays and had a tough time getting off blocks, and too often the men up front didn't protect them. Early returns from sources at prac- tice indicate there's still plenty of work to do here, and the key in any 3-4 front is finding a dominant nose tackle. Freshman guard Zak Zinter believes a redshirt freshman can be that guy. "Someone that has stood out I'd say is Mazi Smith," Zinter said of the 6-3, 305-pounder. "He has a bright Redshirt junior linebacker Josh Ross posted 53 tackles, including 1.5 for loss and a sack, last season, but he is coming back for another year feeling he has something to prove. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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