Picking up the pieces after losing program-defining defensive stars could be a major hurdle for a lot of programs.

But that’s not — and hasn’t been during Jim Harbaugh’s tenure — a problem at Michigan. When one leaves, another takes over and leads what has consistently been one of the top defenses in the nation during the past 7 or so years.

In 2021, Michigan had the Super Sack Bros. in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who combined for 25 sacks off the edge during the Wolverines’ run to the College Football Playoff and Big Ten championship. Hutchinson, the No. 2 pick of the 2022 NFL Draft (Detroit), had a program single-season record 14 sacks, while Ojabo put up 11.

Yes, they were dynamic superstars. Yes, they’ll be missed by Michigan.

But no, the world hasn’t come crashing to an end — even though DC Mike Macdonald went back to the Baltimore Ravens — for the Wolverines, who have plenty of up-and-coming and existing power to shoulder the load this fall.

Answering the Big Question

Who’s going to fill the void left by Hutchinson and Ojabo? Well, since last season, the heir apparent has been Mike Morris, one of UM’s most valuable reserves who turned into a real-deal potential star. Harbaugh has compared Morris to Hutchinson and Ojabo, stating that he believes Morris could eventually be a similar player.

Will that happen this year?

Maybe. At least toward the end of the season, once Morris gets fully immersed as a starter.

“I really didn’t get to do a lot of the stuff I wanted to do because of Aidan,” Morris said this week on In the Trenches, a UM-specific podcast run by the university’s athletic department, per 247 Sports.

“I accepted every role that I got and I loved every role that I got because I was able to benefit the team. But I feel like now I can step into more of an edge role in the defense and dominate in that aspect. I’m very looking forward to that.”

Morris probably won’t get 14 sacks, or even 11, but he should come up with at least a handful. For the time being, let’s schedule him for 5.5 sacks this fall — which would be a great debut for the 6-6, 280-pound first-time starter.

Best young LB in the country?

A Freshman All-American in 2021, Junior Colson was among Michigan’s leading tacklers and one of its obvious next-in-line stars. At 6-2 and 225 pounds, Colson is built for speed and power. With 60 stops in 2021, he was the Wolverines’ 5th-leading tackler. This fall, he should easily make the coveted freshman-to-sophomore leap (always referenced by Harbaugh) and rack up at least 90 tackles.

By the end of the season, Colson should be recognized as one of the top underclassmen in the nation — and that’s not even a way-too-early prediction, that’s just basic logic based on his current trajectory.

2-way contributors

During the spring game, Kalel Mullings was on both sides of the ball as a linebacker and running back. In 2021, the redshirt freshman — or true freshman since he played 1 game in the erased 2020 season — Mullings filled in as a linebacker and looked pretty good as a reserve. He’ll be counted on to do his thing on offense and defense; and while 2-way players aren’t too common these days — let alone 2-way guys who really make an impact on both sides — Mullings could be the exception to the rule.

Look for Mullings to be a valuable situational RB and key player in the LB rotation. Due to the loaded Wolverines’ backfield, it’s unlikely that Mullings will put up notable numbers while running the ball — but again, he could easily develop into a goal-line specialist or short-yardage option.

Mike Sainristil should also flex some skills on both sides of the ball this fall. Recruited as a wide receiver, he’s gotten reps as a defensive back and could end up as Michigan’s starting nickelback in 2022. Michigan has plenty of WRs, including Ronnie Bell who returns from a leg injury, to work with this season — but Sainristil could end up being a situational guy while also being a key contributor in the defensive backfield.

Michigan D won’t give up a lot in 2022

As a rule, it’s been difficult to put up 3 or more touchdowns against Michigan (unless you’re Ohio State) during Harbaugh’s tenure. That probably won’t change this fall, as the Wolverines are expected to have another top-tier defense. Predicting a top-15 total defense controlled by new DC Jesse Minter wouldn’t be a major stretch.

According to the NCAA, Michigan gave up 28 offensive TDs and 4.93 yards per play this past season. Look for similar numbers this fall. Some new faces and new coaching has been the norm over the years, but the results have remained relatively consistent.