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Defensive line could make or break Michigan football season against quarterback-loaded schedule

Who steps up behind Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye?

Kwity Paye, Aidan Hutchinson and Carlo Kemp are the only known commodities on Michigan's defensive line.
Kwity Paye, Aidan Hutchinson and Carlo Kemp are the only known commodities on Michigan's defensive line. (2019 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The defensive line’s ability to get pressure on opposing passers could be the key to the 2020 Michigan football season, as the schedule is loaded with talented quarterbacks.

Don Brown has been known for his aggressive defensive scheme at Michigan, but this year he’ll be without a luxury he’s enjoyed for the last three seasons: lockdown cornerback play. Lavert Hill, David Long and Ambry Thomas have been elite coverage corners that allowed Brown to send linebackers and safeties on creative blitzes.

But if young defensive backs such as Vincent Gray, Andre Seldon and D.J. Turner experience growing pains in 2020, the Wolverines will have to figure out a way to get pressure without sending too many extra players and leaving one-on-one coverage exposed.

Unfortunately, the defensive line wasn’t a strength for Michigan a year ago. Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye are excellent defensive ends, but there was very little help on the interior, and that hurt Michigan against balanced offenses such as Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State.

Even though the schedule is shorter this season, Michigan won’t avoid the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

Ohio State’s Justin Fields is the most obvious hurdle to overcome, but Michigan will also face Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, Wisconsin’s Jack Coan, Penn State’s Sean Clifford and Indiana’s Michael Penix. Even Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa could provide a challenge.

Michigan has too much talent on the roster not to be able to win the line of scrimmage on defense. If those same struggles from a year ago persist, the Wolverines could be looking at another three- or four-loss season.

Look no further than the 2019 recruiting class to find the X-factors for this defensive line. Former five-star defensive tackle Chris Hinton is expected to start alongside veteran Carlo Kemp, who has long been a leader in the Michigan locker room.

In a best-case scenario, that combination could be a perfect mix for the Wolverines. Kemp is a steady, reliable player but not much of a threat to put up big numbers in the backfield. Hinton, on the other hand, is raw and unproven, but has the potential to be a playmaker on the inside.

Mazi Smith was also a top defensive tackle prospect in the 2019 class -- a four-star ranked as the No. 11 player at his position nationally.

Smith didn’t make an impact last season despite enrolling early, but Michigan hopes he can be a breakout player since there’s so much need at the position.

Beyond Hinton and Smith, the rest of the defensive line depth is hard to project. There are a few highly rated recruits on the roster, but the buzz out of Schembechler Hall hasn’t been especially loud.

David Ojabo could be a sleeper because he came to Michigan in that same 2019 class as a four-star prospect despite only playing football for a couple of years in high school. Ojabo has a high ceiling, but it could take more than just one redshirt season to get him ready for Big Ten competition.

Donovan Jeter and Luiji Vilain were both four-star recruits in the 2017 class, but they haven’t been major factors their first three years on campus -- partly due to injuries.

Julius Welschof, Mike Morris, Taylor Upshaw and Gabe Newburg weren’t ranked quite as highly, but they were recruited by this defensive staff, so they should start to play a role if the projected two-deep isn’t getting the job done.

Beyond Hutchinson and Paye, the defensive line could very well be a weakness for Michigan, and that would be a crippling blow to a young defense.

Brown has to find a way to get more consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season, and he can’t do so at the cost of compromising the secondary. Michigan has been able to count on strong defenses throughout the Jim Harbaugh era, but this year’s unit has a lot of questions to answer.


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