ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Michigan football team has fielded elite defenses every season since Don Brown took over as defensive coordinator, and many are expecting the same heading into 2019.
But Michigan has to replace elite talent across the defense, from defensive ends Chase Winovich and Rasahn Gary, to elite linebacker Devin Bush to one of the best cornerbacks in the country in David Long.
Last season, Winovich, Gary, Bush and Long combined for 209 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and 15 pass breakups.
Despite the attrition, Michigan was picked to win the Big Ten championship this season. How the Wolverines replace that NFL talent on defense will be a major factor in meeting those high expectations.
No single player can replace four stars, but Khaleke Hudson could make the most headway.
Hudson quietly had a disappointing season for the Wolverines in 2018, making just 44 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 13 games. He was kicked out of consecutive games for targeting early in the season, and head coach Jim Harbaugh believes he never got into a rhythm.
Michigan's coaching staff already knows what Hudson is capable of. He put together one of the best defensive stat lines in the country as a sophomore, racking up 83 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
If he can be that type of terror in the backfield, it will greatly help an offensive line trying to replace its two best pass rushers.
But what makes Hudson uniquely qualified to elevate Michigan's entire defense is his versatility at the VIPER position. Brown asks him to be a force behind the line of scrimmage as a run stopper and pass rusher, but he also has to drop into coverage more often than a typical linebacker.
During his breakout 2017 season, Hudson led the team with 11 pass breakups and tied Long and Lavert Hill with two interceptions.
Michigan's secondary will struggle to replace Long, especially with presumed starter Ambry Thomas out for an extended time due to sickness. But if Hudson can be a playmaker in the secondary on big passing plays, it would be a major boost to whoever assumes that No. 2 cornerback role.
Not many players can say they've approached 20 tackles for loss in a season and also broken up double-digit passes. Hudson has done both in the same year.
In fact, Hudson's best season came under very similar circumstances.
The Wolverines won 10 games in 2016 and missed the Big Ten title game because of a loss in Columbus. That team was led by the nation's No. 1 defense.
Last year's team also won 10 games and missed the conference championship because of a loss in Columbus. Michigan ranked No. 2 nationally in total defense.
While this year's team fights to reload from losing Winovich, Gary, Bush and Long, the 2017 team had to replace Jabrill Peppers, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Jourdan Lewis, Delano Hill, Ben Gedeon, Ryan Glasgow and Jeremy Clark -- all defensive players selected in the NFL draft.
Hudson became a starter for the first time as the Wolverines tried to replace four defensive backs, a linebacker and three defensive linemen.
He responded in a big way, becoming an elite pass rusher, a reliable tackler and an able defender in coverage.
Now, coming off a down year, Hudson will be asked to make similar strides.
If he answers the call, Michigan will likely finish with a top-five defense for the fifth year in a row.