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Michigan Football 2021: The Defense

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Coming off its first losing season under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan embarks on somewhat of a transitional season in 2021. With significant turnover on both its roster and coaching staff, uncertainty abounds for the Wolverines. If you read yesterday’s preview of Michigan’s offense, you know there are more questions than answers on that side of the ball, particularly at critical positions like quarterback and offensive line. The situation is no less uncertain on the defensive side of the ball, where there are precious few returning playmakers on a defense that struggled mightily last season.

Michigan’s defense will feature many new faces this season, beginning at the top. After five years under the charge of Don Brown, Michigan turns to 33-year-old, first time defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald to lead its defense. Macdonald, who comes to Michigan from the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, brings both a new perspective and a new scheme to the Wolverines. Brown’s 4-3 defensive front and much maligned press-man coverage in the secondary will be replaced by what’s presumed to be a 3-4 front and more zone coverage on the back end.

Any schematic changes might not be so black and white, however. Not big on labels, Macdonald stressed that Michigan will run different schemes. “We’re going to be multiple,” Macdonald told reporters this spring. “It’s (Michigan’s defense) going to look a lot like the places I’ve been previously.” Most noticeably, the NFL’s Ravens. Macdonald pointed out that the Ravens ran multiple defensive sets depending on the situation and he envisions doing much of the same at Michigan.

Having the ability to go “multiple” on defense is music to the ears of Wolverines fans, who are undoubtedly still scarred by Brown’s inability to adjust in response to differences in opponent and personnel. But schemes aside, the perhaps the more pressing concern for Macdonald is that he inherits a defense that returns as few playmakers as any Wolverine unit has in recent - or extended - memory.

Fortunately for Macdonald, one of those returning players is third-year edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson. Hutchinson is arguably Michigan’s most dynamic player on either side of the ball, and providing he’s recovered from last year’s season-ending leg injury, the Michigan legacy looks primed for a big season.

But while Hutchinson provides a veteran presence on the edge, it’s another story inside. In 2016, when Michigan had what was probably its best defense under Brown, its strength was up front, where the Wolverines went two-deep with NFL-level talent along the defensive line. It’s no coincidence that Michigan’s diminished defensive performance over the past couple of years has correlated with its diminished defensive line play. Having Hutchinson back will help, but to truly take a step forward, Macdonald and the Wolverines will need its interior linemen, particularly Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith, to step up. Until now, the hype has outpaced performance for the pair. For Michigan to improve upon what was the 89th ranked defense in the country last season, that will have to change.

Linebacker is no less concerning. Josh Ross returns, as does Michael Barrett, who transitions from his Viper position to a more traditional linebacking role. The pair bring with them starting experience, but how will the 225-pound Barrett and the 230-pound Ross hold up against some of the bigger offensive lines in the Big Ten? And who will step up to provide depth at the position? These are questions to which Michigan and its coaching staff don’t yet have answers.

In the secondary, it’s a tale of two positions. If there’s been an Achilles heel for Michigan’s defense the past couple of years, it’s been at cornerback, where Michigan has had trouble staying with opposing receivers. That was particularly (and painfully) evident in Michigan’s loss to Michigan State, when it seemed like every time Spartan quarterback Rocky Lombardi dropped back to pass, the result was a long completion or a defensive penalty. Presumptive starters Vincent Gray and Gemon Green will benefit from another year of experience, but will that experience lead to improved play?

Fortunately for Michigan, its embattled cornerbacks will have help from safeties Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins. Hawkins, a fifth-year senior, will provide much needed leadership and stability to the back of Michigan’s defense, and despite Hill’s somewhat inconsistent play, the sophomore possesses NFL-level talent. Will this be the season Hill’s production matches his potential?

I wrote earlier that this is somewhat of a transition season for Michigan. On the defensive side of the ball, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call it a full-on re-build. Macdonald may bring a new perspective to Michigan’s defense, but schemes can only do so much or go so far. For Michigan to exceed expectations this year, its defense will have to play much better than it did last year. And for that to happen, new coordinator or not, Michigan will need several defensive players to make significant steps forward.