The Wolverine

2021 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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THE WOLVERINE 2021 FOOTBALL PREVIEW ■ 103 [ L I N E B A C K E R S ] PRESEASON ANALYSIS: STARTERS ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ This group's fate begins with redshirt ju- nior Josh Ross, who has All-Big Ten potential but needs to play with more discipline. Be- yond that are plenty of unknowns, including a position switch for former viper Michael Barrett and a big question mark at the Sam (outside) linebacker spot. There's some experience here, but nobody really knows what to expect of the group in its first year learning a new defense. DEPTH There's some real talent here, but not much experience. None of the backups have played a meaningful down in game situations, and while Nikhai Hill-Green and Junior Colson could be really good down the road, they're still freshmen who haven't played a single defensive snap in college. That's not an ideal situation at such a criti- cal position. OVERALL ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ The linebackers reportedly made progress this spring, but there's still a long way to go … not just with that group, but the front seven as a whole. There's some experience here, but no proven depth on a brand-new defense. There could be some struggles early in the season while the group gets ac- climated. "I want to see guys go out and give all-out effort every day," Helow said this spring. "It's not what we do; it's how we do it. It's the way you run to the ball, the way you put on your helmet ... the way you strike blockers, the way you take angles to the ball." That might sound cliché, but the Wolverines were lacking in some of those areas last year. They made progress throughout the spring, but there's a long way to go. "If you watch the tape from day one, it is like night and day, and that's got to be your goal," Helow said. "You just take a little bit every day, and you get better." Much of their success, too, relies on the guys in front of them on the defensive line, a group that also struggled last season. The Wolverines will run multiple fronts this year, but a lot of sets will feature three down linemen and ends like junior Aidan Hutchinson who will play more of a stand-up role in 2021 (think J.J. Watt at Wisconsin). Either way, the linebacker group needs to show up big, and it starts with Ross. An injury slowed him after his big 2018 season, limiting him to four games and 18 tackles in 2019, and his brother said the previous year's injury still seemed to affect him in 2020. Ross started strong with an interception and nine tackles (six solo) in the opener at Minnesota. His brother wants to see more performances like that in 2021, and he believes Michigan fans will. "He puts so much work in … I just would like for it to show up on the tape," he said. "I know that high-ankle sprain the year before got to him. He wasn't able to have the season he wanted. He had a pretty good sophomore year and was building off of that, but that ankle kind of shut him down. "Last year was really chaotic with COVID, the unpredictability of the season. I just really hope it all comes together for him this year, and I'm really confident it will with the amount of time he's put in and that they've been spending together as a unit." By all accounts, Ross showed extremely well in the spring game and seems ready to replicate his 2018 success. He's always been a big hitter — now it's time to take the next step and realize his All-Big Ten potential. The jury's still out on redshirt sophomore Barrett, who now moves from viper — the hybrid linebacker/safety position — inside, where more will be demanded of him physically. He's 6-0, 227 pounds and physical, finishing third on the team in tackles last year (44), but the schemes and terminology have changed, and the responsibilities are different from what he's accustomed to. [ L I N E B A C K E R S ] Despite his injury last fall, Cameron McGrone went to New England in the fifth round of the April NFL Draft, the fifth linebacker head coach Jim Harbaugh sent to the league in his six years since arriving in 2015. The Wolverines had only had two linebackers selected in the six years preceding him. Linebackers coach George Helow and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald first met in 2013. At the time, Helow was a graduate assistant at Florida State, and Macdonald held the same position at Georgia. They worked together for a few months at Georgia in 2014 before Macdonald left for the Baltimore Ravens, and got to know each other better when Helow started coaching at Mary- land. Their friendship played an important part in Helow joining the U-M staff. Redshirt freshman Joey Velazquez has been playing more on the baseball side and provided seven RBIs in only 23 at-bats this spring. Two of them came on a ninth-inning single in a game with Maryland May 21 that tied it up at 8-8 after U-M had trailed 8-0. This summer, the Wolverines add another pair of freshmen in addition to early enrollee Junior Colson in Jaydon Hood, a four-star out of Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas — one on the country's top prep programs — and three-star Tyler McLaurin of Bolingbrook (Ill.) High. Hood,'s No. 225 prospect nationally, helped lead a 31-21 win over Orlando Edge- water in the Florida 7A state championship game. [ F Y I ] THE WOLVERINE 2021 FOOTBALL PREVIEW ■ 103 LEADING RETURNING TACKLER AT LB (STATS FROM THE PREVIOUS YEAR) Year Player Solo Assist Total TFL-Yds. Sacks-Yds. 2021* Josh Ross 27 26 53 1.5-13 1.0-11 2020 Cameron McGrone 38 28 66 9.5-45 4.0-33 2019 Josh Ross 22 39 61 5.0-8 1.0-1 2018 Devin Bush Jr. 38 64 102 9.5-45 5.0-39 2017 Mike McCray 39 37 76 12.5-51 4.5-30 2016 Jabrill Peppers 34 11 45 5.5-16 0.0-0 2015 Joe Bolden 55 47 102 4.0-18 2.0-15 2014 James Ross III 46 39 85 5.5-23 1.5-17 2013 Jake Ryan 56 32 88 16.0-71 4.5-35 2012 Kenny Demens 49 45 94 5.0-20 3.0-18 *Only played six games in 2020 due to COVID-19

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