Michigan football: Analyzing the Wolverines' defense heading into offseason
Now that Jim Harbaugh’s future is settled (for 2023, anyway), let’s get back to focusing on some football.
Michigan’s defense will likely be among the top ones in college football in 2023, but it’s taken a slight hit during the early stages of the offseason. Declarations for the 2023 NFL Draft and the transfer portal have caused discussion.
Taylor Upshaw and Julius Welschof hit the trail for other schools; their departures could cause some depth issues for Michigan’s pass-rush next fall. Upshaw played a lot of football. Welschof, though experienced and knowledgeable of the system, didn’t do too much during his stretch in Ann Arbor — but he could have been a valuable depth guy next season.
Mazi Smith, one of the best DTs in the game, is headed to the NFL. So is Mike Morris, who developed into one of the top pass-rushers within the past decade at Michigan. Fortunately, Kris Jenkins, another pass-rush dynamo for the Wolverines, decided to return.
DJ Turner declared for the draft, leaving as one of the best defensive backs of the Harbaugh era. He could have stuck around for 1 more go-round but he chose to break off and hit the pros.
There were also a couple of reserves who chose to vacate the premises.
Reload. Rebuild. Regenerate.
Regardless of the word Wolverines defensive coordinator Jesse Minter chooses to describe the next step, it’s plain to see that his unit will have to adjust to new personnel.
And really, that’s the case for almost every team at the end of the year: Everyone looks ahead and takes their best guesses at who will do what come spring ball and, then, ultimately, during fall camp and into the regular season.
Despite being lit up by TCU’s offense during a 51-45 Fiesta Bowl loss in the College Football Playoff semifinal in Glendale, Arizona, the Wolverines finished the year with the No. 6-ranked total defense. Other than the Battle Toads’ exemplary dissection on New Year’s Eve, most teams couldn’t put up 2 touchdowns against Michigan.
And when they did, they ended up losing anyway. For the best example, see UM’s 45-23 win over Ohio State.
Well, anyway, this article isn’t going to write itself, so it’s time do dive into highlighting some of the major names to watch in 2023.
This past season’s addition of Alabama transfer Eyabi Okie was supposed to provide an incredible boost to the Wolverines’ pass-rush. He was predicted, by many analysts, to make an immediate impact. However, an undisclosed/unconfirmed injury limited him to 8 regular-season games; he played 11 snaps during the CFP semifinal loss to TCU. Okie finished the year with 18 tackles and 4 sacks, leading many to believe that there is plenty more production to come in 2023. It just won’t be in Ann Arbor. Okie announced last week that he is transferring.
Jaylen Harrell’s name has been tossed around for 2 years, so he’s not a wild card of any sorts. In 2021, he proved that he was among the Wolverines’ top up-and-comers, and the the 2022 season further solidified that notion: Harrell finished with 30 tackles, 5 QB hurries and 3.5 sacks — so it’s safe to assume that he’ll be among the team leaders in 2023, if not among Big Ten leaders.
Replacing the production of Mike Morris’ 7.5 sacks will be a tall task, but Michigan was able to field adequate replacements for 2021 star QB-hunters David Ojabo (11 sacks) and Aidan Hutchinson (14 sacks). Kris Jenkins will return, so that’s a positive for the Wolverines. Watch out for Braiden McGregor and Mason Graham in 2023; they’re stars-in-the-making for Minter’s nationally respected defense.
Will Johnson is going to be a top NFL Draft pick when his time comes to jump from college. As a true freshman in 2022, Johnson, a 5-star recruit, had 2 picks during the Big Ten Championship Game win over Purdue and finished with 3 on the season (2nd-most on the team behind Rod Moore’s 4).
Johnson is a pass-coverage savant. Very few players step in as a true freshman and perform at his level. He’ll be the anchor of the defensive backfield.
Moore is returning, so that gives the Wolverines more experience in the department; he’ll be a junior and solidified himself as one of the top DBs in the Big Ten in 2022.
As a true freshman in 2021, linebacker Junior Colson earned first-team All-America honors. In 2022, as a sophomore, Colson led the Wolverines in tackles, finishing with 101 (including 2 sacks). There is no doubting that he’ll continue to rack up the tackles and make game-defining plays for the Wolverines, who — due to bumps and bruises — found themselves short at LB toward the end of the season.
Whether it’s defending the run, blitzing or dropping back to cover intermediate routes, Colson has done everything for Michigan’s defense. Expect more of the same next fall.