Michigan football: Examining next wave of Wolverines' star defenders
Now that Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, Josh Ross, Christopher Hinton and Dax Hill have moved on to the next phases of their careers, Michigan will have to quickly usher in its next generation of Saturday Heroes in order to maintain momentum.
While winning the Big Ten Championship and appearing in the College Football Playoff were great achievements, they were done last year and don’t necessarily guarantee anything about this upcoming season.
This past year, Michigan’s defense was a primary contributor to overall success. Despite not landing in the top 10 of final rankings as usual, the Wolverines finished No. 20 in the country, allowing 330.8 yards per game. Additionally, UM allowed 29 touchdowns, among the fewest when comparing to the top defenses in college football.
Finding the next stars will be one of DC Mike Macdonald’s biggest undertakings this spring, and ultimately into fall camp and into the regular season. Fortunately for Michigan, it has developed enough to fill — or at least help fill — the voids left by the departing stars.
Many of them were solid contributors in 2021, leaving little doubt they will elevate their games in 2022. Well, here are those guys — some expected, some maybe not. The following players will certainly help what should be another solid defense in Ann Arbor.
Time for Mike?
Mike Morris was a rotation player at the EDGE position, so it’s not a leap to suggest that he’ll be a cornerstone for the Wolverines in 2022. At 6-6 and 278 pounds, he’s certainly physically imposing — especially when firing from the edge, directing all of his momentum toward a quarterback or running back. He is, by no means, a small guy. With his wingspan, he’s capable of disrupting passes at the line of scrimmage; he has the potential to do a lot for the Wolverines this fall.
An interception at Michigan State, 10 games played and 4 with 2 or more tackles … Morris already has a decent resume heading into spring. Given the fact that he’ll likely be a leader of a group that just lost 2 of its best EDGE players in program history, it’s safe to say that he’ll be a player to watch this year.
Kris in the middle
Kris Jenkins saw significant action this past fall, filling in as a backup tackle and developing into one of UM’s top interior D-linemen. The 6-3, 275-pound sophomore had a career-high 4 tackles during UM’s 34-11 CFP loss to eventual national champion Georgia. He also gained valuable experience against Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin, to name a few. His UM bio says he’s appeared in 15 games, but Sports Reference — another very accurate and handy tool — says he’s played in 11. So let’s split the difference and say he’s appeared in roughly 13 games.
Either way, he’s played enough snaps to know the score. Like the rest, he’ll enter his second season under Macdonald — and if 2021 was any indication, it looks like the defense — despite some key losses — is bound for bigger and better this fall. It’s a little crazy to get all excited about one season with Macdonald, but the proof was on the field all year long; he’s definitely a difference-maker and will likely elevate players such as Jenkins to star status this fall.
He’s still a kid … and that’s scary!
A Freshman All-American, linebacker Junior Colson is on the rise in Ann Arbor, quickly becoming one of the top young players to watch, regardless of position. Yeah, there is QB JJ McCarthy and RB Donovan Edwards, but Colson deserves some recognition too. He’ll be a player to help push the current defense into the future, and the program for that matter.
The 6-2, 225-pound freshman played in 14 games this past fall, racking up 60 tackles — the fourth-most on the team and most of anyone not named Josh Ross, Dax Hill, Aidan Hutchinson or Brad Hawkins, who also had 60 stops. So take all of that into consideration: the only players with more tackles were star/key players. Hill and Hutchinson are certainly bound for Sundays. Ross and Hawkins will also have opportunities to extend their careers into the NFL or other pro league.
That’s some esteemed company for Colson, who will definitely be a primary figure for the Wolverines in 2022.
King Ojabo’s backup
When you’re No. 2 behind David Ojabo, you’re probably good enough to start for most teams. However, playing second fiddle to a potential top-1o NFL draft pick was probably the best-case scenario for Jaylen Harrell, a 6-4, 242-pound sophomore.
Harrell played 2 games in 2020 (free year) and saw action in 6 games this past season, notching 2.5 tackles for loss on the year and finishing with a career-high 4 tackles vs. Georgia. He also had 4 tackles vs. Iowa during the B1G title game, so it’s clear to see that he’s a performer during critical contests.
Back to the Ojabo thing. For comparison’s sake, look at the size of each player: 6-5, 250 for Ojabo and 6-4, 242 for Harrell. That’s a favorable comparison. Now, that’s not to say that he’ll get anything close to 11 sacks like Ojabo, but it is to say that the body type is similar … so it might not be out of line to think that Harrell could eventually yield (somewhat) similar production.