Better or worse? Previewing Michigan's defense in 2020
The 2019 season was the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era that Michigan did not have a top-10 defense. The Wolverines were a meager 11th nationally in total defense.
For all the (mostly justifiable) criticism Harbaugh’s teams have received on the offensive side of the ball, you can’t say the same about the defensive side of the ball. Michigan has been mostly excellent on that side of the ball — led by defensive coordinator Don Brown — save for a few games.
Now, does defense win championships, as the old saying goes? Not at Michigan, apparently. The Wolverines will need more than just a stout defense to get where it wants to go — especially when it is allowing a combined 1,057 total yards against Ohio State and Alabama. The past 2 seasons, in fact, Michigan’s defense has fallen off a cliff in its final 2 games as Ohio State and Florida combined to torch the Wolverines for 995 total yards and 103 points.
Late collapses aside, Michigan’s defense looks very good on paper, yet again. The Wolverines are absolutely loaded up front and talented in the secondary. The one weakness, if you can even call it that, is at linebacker — though it’s probably more fair to label that unit unproven rather than a weakness.
The bar on the defensive side of the ball is high at Michigan, so will it be better or worse in 2020?
Pressuring the QB: Better
Michigan registered 36 sacks in 2019, with eight of those coming in that dominant performance against Iowa. That total is more impressive when you consider that Michigan didn’t get many pass-rushing opportunities against Army and Wisconsin, as those two combined for 118 rushing attempts and only 21 pass attempts. Getting a good pass rush largely depends on the situation, and an improved offense would certainly increase those opportunities.
As far as personnel, Michigan lost Josh Uche (7.5 sacks) to the NFL, but there is optimism that Kwity Paye (6.5 sacks), Aidan Hutchinson and Cameron McGrone can pick up the slack. Paye and Hutchinson both have a ton of potential and are viewed as Day 2 NFL Draft prospects on the edge. Hutchinson has been lauded for the way he played against Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs — the 13th overall pick in the draft — when he tallied 2.5 tackles for loss, including a sack. Paye, meanwhile, was recently rated as the No. 1 freak in college football by The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman. Paye led Michigan with 12.5 tackles for loss and had 6.5 sacks last season, and with his speed, those numbers could certainly go up in 2020.
Run defense: Worse
Michigan allowed only 3.16 yards per carry in 2019, which is pretty darn good. In fact, it’s the best Michigan has done against the run since 2006, when it led the nation in allowing just 1.9 yards per attempt. In 2019, the Wolverines held opponents to under 100 rushing yards 7 times. The overall numbers are inflated because Michigan had a really bad day early in the season against Jonathan Taylor and Wisconsin (57 rushes for 359 yards). But aside from that, Michigan was very good.
They should be strong up front in 2020 on the interior with Carlo Kemp and Chris Hinton. The former is a captain and a 5th-year senior, and the latter is a former 5-star recruit who was the No. 4 defensive tackle in the 2019 class. Now a sophomore, Hinton is expected to move into a starting role and, well, do what 5-star recruits do. McGrone can be a tackling machine, like when he had 12 against Notre Dame. And look out for Josh Ross, who was going to start ahead of McGrone at linebacker last year until he got hurt.
So, the Wolverines of 2020 have a lot to live up to. Despite losing Uche, Khaleke Hudson, Mike Danna and Jordan Glasgow to the NFL, Michigan should still be really good against the run — maybe not quite as good as 2019, though.
Pass defense: Better
Michigan had a top-10 defense if you look at passing yards per game, but that number is a bit inflated because of the aforementioned Army and Wisconsin games, plus the Notre Dame game was played in a downpour with non-ideal passing conditions. The Wolverines actually allowed 7 yards per pass attempt, which was 44th-best in the country.
Michigan lost Lavert Hill, but it has two promising corners in Ambry Thomas and Vincent Gray, both of whom will likely play in the NFL someday. Daxton Hill, the No. 1 safety and No. 14 overall player in the 2019 class, will start for the second straight year and is a burgeoning star.
Is it strange to believe that a team that lost its top three tacklers from the previous season will be even better? In Michigan’s case, it is not. The Wolverines have a ton of talent. And if you take away three really bad games (Wisconsin, Ohio State and Alabama) from last season, Michigan was very good. If it can avoid falling apart like it did in those 3 games, the numbers will surely be better.
The key to the whole thing might be Michael Barrett, who is slated to play the Viper position. It’s a hybrid role in which the player is expected to do a little bit of everything. Barrett is unproven (Khaleke Hudson started there the past 3 years), but if he lives up to the positive reviews he has gotten from teammates and coaches, that would be a huge boost to what is shaping up to be a really good defense.