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Big Ten Football 2023: Michigan Defense Preview

Can Michigan’s Defense hold OSU to half their usual output again?

Big Ten Championship - Purdue v Michigan Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Yup. me again. Suck it up. You get Brian back for the Closing Arguments piece.

What Happened Last Year

Let’s start by looking a little further back. After an awful 2020 season, the Michigan defense enjoyed a renaissance in ‘21 fueled by three things in particular:

  • New-to-college-football DC Mike Macdonald
  • The evolution of David Ojabo from athlete to football player
  • The return-from-injury of generational player Aidan Hutchinson.

But then none of those guys came back for 2022. Additionally, the Wolverines lost star do-everything safety Daxton Hill to the first round of the NFL draft. And if that wasn’t enough, starting LB Nikhai Hill-Green was lost for the season in training camp. They were fucked, right?

Interestingly, no. Michigan brought in yet another old Ravens hand in Vanderbilt DC Jesse Minter to run pretty much the same system. The result was the defense was better than the offense in 2022, finishing the season 4th in F+ even after giving up a 50-burger to TCU in the Fiesta Bowl*.

I don’t know if Michigan’s opponents just got Tuckered out (you’re welcome) or Minter is some kind of wizard with 2nd half adjustments, but Michigan gave up zero 2nd-half points over a five game stretch in the middle of the season. Sure Rutgers and Indiana were in that stretch, but so were Penn State (impressive) and Michigan State (gratifying). Most importantly, they gave up only 3 in the 2nd half in Columbus.

* Jim Harbaugh says he learned a ton about coaching from Bo Schembechler. Apparently the biggest lesson he learned is bowl games are for chumps. Real men lose their bowl games! (explanation not provided).

Defensive Front

Kris Jenkins eats a Michigan State running back
Kris Jenkins, seen here in his natural habitat
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Last Year

Um. Surprisingly good? Michigan was stout against the run, and the front was a bigger part of that than the linebackers. The Wolverines also had 37 sacks, but that’s a bit of fools gold. Michigan’s pass rush feasted on bad offensive lines and struggled with good ones. Michigan exceeded 2 sacks against six(!) teams, but those six were Colorado State, Maryland, Iowa, Indiana, Rutgers, and Purdue.


  • NT Mazi Smith (Dallas, 1st round) The former 5* recruit took a few years to build the stamina to collect meaningful playing time, but he was a force last year. In addition to being a double-team-eating monster, he provided some unexpected pass rush from the NT spot.
  • SDE Mike Morris (Seattle, 5th round) At 6-6, 300lbs, Morris is a big DE. With the departure of Hutchinson and Ojabo, Morris was Michigan’s most important end. He didn’t disappoint. He was arguably Michigan’s best pass rusher, and certainly its best run defender on the edge.
  • SDE Taylor Upshaw (portal to Colorado) Role player, mostly used as an edge defender in run situations. A solid rotation player, but not a guy opposing offenses were scared of.
  • DT George Rooks (portal to Boston College) You hate to lose any interior D-linemen, and especially 4-star bluechip guys. Rooks was buried on the depth chart, but I wish we still had him for depth and as a future player.
  • DE Eyabi Okie (portal to Charlotte). Okie was a surprise late transfer to Michigan during 2022 training camp. Michigan was the 4th team in as many years for the former top-20 recruit. Okie looked fantastic rushing the passer at the ends of games when teams were desperate, but was a liability against the run. We were hoping he’d grow as a run defender because you’d love him on the field more. Okie followed former Michigan coach Biff Poggi to Charlotte. Poggi was also Okie’s high school head coach.

Returning Regulars

  • DT Kris Jenkins (RS Jr) Perhaps the most welcome news Michigan fans got in the entire offseason was Jenkins forgoing the NFL for a year. Jenkins is Michigan’s best returning lineman. He’s about three bills, and will move around playing any spot on the line except NT (and maybe even that on passing downs).
  • DT Mason Graham (Tr So) Despite not being a superstar recruit, Graham was that rarest of things in 2022: An actually capable true-freshman DT. He was better than half the interior DL guys we’ve played in the Harbaugh era, and he can play the nose or 3-tech. If he takes any kind of a sophomore leap, look out.
  • NT Rayshaun Benny (RS So) Played a ton last year as a RS freshman when Michigan was deep enough they didn’t have to do that. More a 3-tech than nose unless it’s an obvious passing down. He’s got that whole “use crazy gumby arms to occupy doubles to free up LBs” thing that MSU has done so well the last ten years.
  • Braden McGreggor (RS Jr) Is this the year? McGreggor is a rotation regular and has shown flashes of being a dominant pass rusher for years, but only flashes. He’s improved every year, but hasn’t made a leap. So I ask again, is this the year? Michigan’s lack of depth outside has us hoping (praying?) the answer is “yes”.

New/Expected to Step Up

  • SDE Derrick Moore (Tr So) As a freshman, he stepped onto campus a grown-ass man. He was 6-3, 260 when he got here, hit 280 in the spring, and showed up for camp at 258. This journalist (stop laughing) says that weight loss was intentional to increase his already noticeable agility when rushing the passer. Probably Michigan’s quickest defensive lineman, he’ll play a ton on the outside, and may be Michigan’s best pass rusher in 2023.
  • WDE Josaiah Stewart (Tr Jr, portal from YOUR Coastal Carolina Chanticleers!) Reportedly he raised nine kinds of hell as a whirling dervish DE in the Sun Belt. Now he’s in the big10. The last time Michigan had a guy like that was Western Michigan transfer Mike Danna. If Stewart works out nearly as well he’ll be a steal.
  • NT Kenneth Grant (Tr So) That’s no moon, that’s a space station. Except maybe bigger. They burned his red shirt last year because they don’t expect to keep him from the NFL for 5 years anyway. He’s a planetoid run stopper with intriguing short-area quickness. Like almost any true-freshman NT, he was marginal last year, but his ceiling is vast.


It’s weird to lose two players as good as Smith and Morris and be kinda ok with it. There’s no doubt Michigan will miss them, but they’re still good and deep and big all along the line. The run defense will start up front and the back seven aren’t going to have to make up for many deficiencies in front of them.

Like last year, the biggest question mark up front is pass rush. Right now there’s no one whose pass rush is so feared opponents will game plan around him. Contrast that with 2021 when most teams were terrified to hold the ball more than 2 seconds.


Syndication: Detroit Free Press
You don’t get to play UConn every week, Junior
Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Last year

Probably Michigan’s weakest unit on either side of the ball last year. If you saw a defensive bust it was usually a linebacker. Still, “weakest” is a relative term. Did I mention it was the #4 defense in the country by F+?


  • MLB Nikhai Hill-Green (portal to Charlotte). Expected to be a starter last year (and he was missed when he wasn’t available). Reportedly passed on the depth chart by a couple guys. Don’t know if the injury permanently cost athleticism or if simply losing a year of development was all it took.

Returning Regulars

  • MLB Junior Colson (Tr Jr) Was a first-time starter last year, and was more “athletic” than “good”. He’ll make a dazzling play, and then on the next find himself completely in the wrong gap. It’s college football. It’s normal for players to make a leap from their first starting season to their second, right? RIGHT?
  • OLB Michael Barrett (6th Sr) I think this guy got to Michigan about the same time I did. Barrett was recruited to play in Don Brown’s famed “viper” position, and when Brown was fired we didn’t really expect to hear from him again. He’s not really big enough to play OLB, but he plays anyway with savvy and experience. He’s vital for Michigan against spread teams.
  • OLB Jaylen Harrell (RS Jr) Kind of an old school OLB, Harrell is at his best covering tight ends downfield, but he’s a savvy run stopper who sets the edge better than you’d expect for his size. It’s not uncommon for Michigan to play only one DE when Harrell is on the field (it can be argued he should be listed with DEs). Despite what TV people will tell you, he’s emphatically not a pass rusher, but he’s a heady player who’s good at pretty much everything else.
  • MLB Jimmy Rolder (Tr So) Rolder was supposed to get a red shirt last year, but with Hill-Green out and nobody to back up Colson, Rolder was in the rotation almost from the start. He frankly looked like a true freshman trying to play middle linebacker. But over the course of the year he got more and more playing time as he started figuring out that whole college football thing.

New/Expected to Step Up

  • MLB Ernest Hausmann (Tr So, portal from Nebraska) Word has it Hausmann passed both Hill-Green and Rolder on the depth chart almost instantly this spring. He was a very promising true freshman at Nebraska last year and we’re just pleased as punch to steal him.


Michigan lost no LBs who played a meaningful snap in 2022 and added a prime transfer. It’s not going to be the weak point of the defense again.


Big Ten Championship - Purdue v Michigan
Will Johnson says “MINE!”
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Last Year

Michigan entered 2022 with two burning questions in the secondary:

  • How long will it take Will Johnson to get in the lineup to save them from the fact that Gemon Green was starting at CB.
  • How do they possibly cope with the loss of Daxton Hill?

When a team wins the conference title there is usually some unexpected good fortune and pleasant surprises involved. One of those surprises for Michigan in ‘22 was the play of Gemon Green. Johnson, a true freshman, was an all-world recruit and he looked the part. Still, he didn’t break into the starting lineup until Green was concussed by a Spartan helmet in a now-famous tunnel. That wasn’t because Johnson wasn’t ready. It was because Green was surprisingly (almost shockingly) good in coverage last year. Michigan fans (like this one) were really hoping he’d forgo the NFL for another year, but alas.

The other, even bigger surprise was the emergence of Mike Sainristil, Slot Corner Demon. R Sainristil converted to the defensive backfield from his old slot WR spot in the spring in what felt like true desperation. Lo and behold, he was great there. While discovering his true calling, he also evolved into one of Michigan’s most vocal leaders. Sainristil was a pretty big element of Michigan’s defense being better than expected in 2022.


  • CB DJ Turner (Cincinnati, 2nd round) 3-yr starter and a shutdown man-corner. Really helped hide Michigan’s lack of pass rush.
  • CB Gemon Green (NY Giants, UDFA) Good enough in 2022 to keep Will Johnson on the bench. ‘Nuff said.
  • S RJ Moten (portal to Florida) After a promising red shirt freshman campaign in 2021, Excitement for Moten was high. Unfortunately his decision making seemed to regress over the course of 2022. He played less as the season went on.

Returning Regulars

  • CB Will Johnson(Tr So) The former 5* recruit was expected to supplant Gemon Green quickly, but Green was good enough that it took a while. This gave Michigan three quality corners late in the season, a thing that matters when playing Ohio State. He will never come off the field in 2023.
  • Slot CB Mike Sainristil (RS Sr) Given the CB gap opposite Johnson, many thought Sainristril would move there. Word is the coaches like him so much over the slot, they refuse to move him.
  • S Rod Moore (Tr Jr) Played significant snaps as a true freshman and moved into a starting role last year. He’s an above-average, if unspectacular, all-around safety and will be counted on as a leader in the secondary in 2023.
  • S Makari Paige (RS Jr) Pretty much took Moten’s job by the end of the year in ‘22. Tall and rangy, he’s a bigger safety who’s at his best playing center field.

New/Expected to Step Up

  • CB Jaden McBurrows (RS So) The leading candidate of “returning” CBs to fill the empty CB spot. He’s lost both of his first two years to injuries, though, and as a recruit he wasn’t a real burner to begin with. Can he still run well enough to play CB at this level?
  • CB Amorion Walker (Tr So) A 6-4 bluechip WR recruit two years ago, he converts to defense like a stretched version of Mike Sainristil. Coaches raved about him through spring practice and then he got lit up like a Christmas tree in the spring game by walk-on WR Peyton O’Leary. (seriously. 6/126 on 7 targets plus the game winning 2pt conversion). If you see him on the field against your team this year, you have reason to be excited.
  • CB Josh Wallace (RS Sr, portal from UMass) A good player for a terrible team the last 4 years. If Wallace was a pickup for depth, I’d be excited. I’m less excited about a UMass player probably starting at the #2 CB spot against OSU.


Like most college football teams nowadays, Michigan has 5 DBs on the field almost all the time. 4 of them look solid-to-great. The Great Gaping Chasm of the #2 CB spot looms large, though. This is particularly scary given pass rush is a question mark as well. The thought of “what happens when you need 3 CBs on the field” is even scarier.

So that all sounds pretty good. What could possibly go wrong?

Dafuc, RMB? Just copy/pasting headings from the offense article? See previous paragraph.

Minter has some work to do. Teams are going to seriously test the pass defense because nobody is going to enjoy running on them and DJ Turner isn’t walking through that door. In 2022, Michigan got away with an average pass rush by having terrific cornerback play. This year? We’ll see.


How will Michigan’s defense fare in 2023?

This poll is closed

  • 35%
    Stupendous! Better than last year!
    (21 votes)
  • 35%
    They’ll be solid, but a step back from last year.
    (21 votes)
  • 1%
    They’re gonna suuuuuck (I am an MSU fan)
    (1 vote)
  • 6%
    They’ll be fine until we hang a hundo on ‘em (I am an OSU fan)
    (4 votes)
  • 18%
    Fuck Michigan (I am a Big10 fan)
    (11 votes)
  • 3%
    Look man. I’ll give you any answer you want, just give us Brian back, ok?
    (2 votes)
60 votes total Vote Now