Michigan football: How Wolverines' Taylor Upshaw can help counter loss of DE Aidan Hutchinson
This past Saturday, he limped to the sideline and then headed toward the locker room. At that point, it was clear that Michigan’s star DE Aidan Hutchinson wouldn’t be available to see it through against Indiana, which ended up winning 38-21 in Bloomington.
The loss of Hutchinson significantly thins out the amount of experience that the Wolverines have on their defensive line. Talent is there, but it certainly hurts the Wolverines to lose a team captain and potential early-round NFL draft pick to an ankle injury.
On Monday, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said that Hutchinson, a junior, would require ankle surgery — another blow for a team that’s already 1-2 and searching for answers as it prepares to host No. 13 Wisconsin this Saturday in Ann Arbor.
Well, you know it goes in football.
Next man up, right?
That next man is Taylor Upshaw, who’s demonstrated hustle throughout limited reps this season. The 6-foot-4, 256-pound redshirt sophomore is lean and athletic, and he’s also received considerable praise from Harbaugh this year.
“I mean, it’s a huge opportunity for me,” Upshaw said during Monday’s Zoom call. “You guys (media) probably know that I haven’t received the playing time that I would have wanted. But now it’s a ‘do or die’ situation — so I’m happy that I get to showcase my skills to the nation.”
Upshaw feels bad for Hutchinson. Nobody wants to see a teammate go down with an injury. Following Hutchinson’s departure this past Saturday, Upshaw saw meaningful reps and was able to critically assess the performance of the D-line, led by Carlo Kemp, Kwity Paye and Donovan Jeter.
Reserves such as Julius Welschof and Luiji Vilain will also likely see more reps now that Michigan’s pool of D-liners has one very large absentee in Hutchinson.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” Upshaw said. “Obviously when you have Aidan or Kwity (Oct. 31 vs. Minnesota) — two guys that we really rely on — go down, it’s going to affect the game. But I have confidence in the backups — and even the guys behind me — so it’s just going to have to be one of those things where we have to step up.”
Upshaw brings a sense of urgency for a team struggling to find an identity on both sides of the ball. “Every week is ‘do or die,’ ” he said.
“Especially being 1-2, you can tell there’s pressure building on us and we have to perform the way we’re capable of performing.”
Though he doesn’t have a laundry list of accomplishments at Michigan, Upshaw has done everything in his power to move up the depth chart. Adding roughly 16 pounds, he’s bulked up while maintaining his trademark quickness, for which he was recruited. The former Florida 3-star commit brings a strong work ethic to the fold as well, another great sign for a D-line that needs to quickly get back to previous form.
In past years, Michigan’s D-line was sacking, pressuring, racking up TFLs and owning the line of scrimmage.
Through three games, the Wolverines have just 6 sacks — with 5 coming during the season-opener at Minnesota.
Replacing a 6-6, 269-pound edge dominator such as Hutchinson will be a difficult task for Upshaw, who wears No. 91. But at 6-4 and pushing 260, he certainly has the frame to at least stand in place of his predecessor. Upshaw has hustle, evidenced by a touchdown-saving tackle against Minnesota. He’s quick, easily being one of UM’s fastest D-linemen.
If anything, he may benefit by teams focusing on Paye, like they did on Hutchinson, and help stuff the stat sheets.
He also has the mindset sought after by coaches.
“The one thing that Taylor has is he has the epitome D-line mentality – kills everything in his path,” defensive line coach Shaun Nua said earlier this season, per Isaiah Hole of Wolverines Wire. “And I love it. Just got to control it at times. But very, very explosive, very athletic young man. Great, great size, great frame. Improving a lot. He’s doing a great job of understanding the full aspect of the game. So he’s gonna be heavily involved in what we do, especially from a rotation standpoint. I’m excited for Taylor Upshaw.”