Much has been written about last season – including here at Off Tackle Empire. Michigan had a breakthrough season in 2021. But for the Wolverines to have the season they had, a lot had to fall into place – both offensively and defensively. So what conclusions can be drawn from last season? Was it a one-off? An outlier? Or was it a sign of things to come? Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh called last season, “Just the beginning.” But is it? Will Harbaugh and his charges build on last season’s success? The answer to that question, as it is with most teams, will largely depend on this season’s roster. And for Harbaugh and the Wolverines, the answer to that question is quite different depending on which side of the ball you’re discussing.
The offense is loaded with returning talent. That’s not the case on defense, however. Michigan loses its top names and playmakers from a year ago with Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, Josh Ross and Dax Hill all moving on to the NFL. But just because Michigan’s defense will feature many new faces this season, it doesn’t mean that those new faces won’t be productive. Harbaugh, in fact, is quite bullish on Michigan’s defense. “I think that our defense could be better (this season). A no-star defense. I’ve been a part of many of them that were the great defenses.”
But Michigan isn’t as much a no-name defense as it is a new-name defense. And many of the new names were able to get their feet wet last season.
One such player is linebacker Junior Colson. Colson showed flashes as a true freshman last season. With a full season under his belt, and a better understanding of Michigan’s defense, look for Colson to not only take a big leap in his sophomore year, but to become one of the leaders of Michigan’s defense. If he does, his head coach won’t be surprised. “I love Junior,” Harbaugh said of Colson on Jon Jansen’s “In the Trenches” podcast. “Junior has it all. He’s got a great work ethic, great attitude, all the physical skills. He’s completely capable of being one of the best linebackers we’ve ever seen around here.”
The secondary should also be in good hands. Last season, DJ Turner made significant strides over the course of the season and finished the year as one of the better cornerbacks in the Big Ten. Turner returns to anchor the secondary with fellow-cornerback Gemon Green. “I just got more comfortable,” Turner said, explaining his improvement over the course of last season. “Got my swag back.” With safeties Rod Moore and RJ Moten joining Turner and Green, the Wolverines have a solid back end of their defense.
Up front, things will be different from last season. Where Michigan excelled on the edge last year, the Wolverines’ strength is inside this year. And that starts with senior defensive tackle and Grand Rapids native Mazi Smith. The “biggest freak” in college football according to Bruce Feldman, Smith has emerged as not only a key piece of Michigan’s defense, but also its vocal leader. Smith will be joined inside by junior Kris Jenkins un what Michigan hopes will be a stout middle. It’s not that Michigan has no options at the edge, senior Mike Morris being one of them, but this year, it will be up to Smith and company to bring the heat from the inside.
Michigan will surely miss its departed defensive stars, and Michigan’s defense will more than likely take step back from last season’s top ten unit. But with the number of talented players that Michigan will suit up, that step back may not be as significant as many may think.