ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Since Jim Harbaugh took over as Michigan’s head football coach five years ago, defense has led the charge.
Michigan has often been ranked among the top five or 10 teams in the country, and that’s thanks to strong defensive performances. When that defense falters, though, the Wolverines have gotten blown out by the likes of Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin.
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This year, Don Brown and his assistant coaches have a challenge on their hands. Between replacing their top two cornerbacks, finding a new viper and bolstering the interior defensive line, they’ve had a busy offseason.
With the first game less than two weeks away, Michigan will soon need to transition from the position battle portion of fall camp to more focused Minnesota prep. Most of the starting spots have already been determined, but there are at least two that aren’t set in stone.
Here are my predictions for who will start at every defensive position to start the season, assuming there aren’t any injuries or positive COVID-19 tests.
Starters: Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye
Confidence: 100% and 100%
This is the easiest position to predict on the defense because the Wolverines have two returning starters who also happened to be two of the best players in 2019.
Hutchinson and Paye were by far the top pass rushers for Michigan a year ago, combining for 22.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. According to Harbaugh, they’ve only gotten better this offseason, and if Michigan can get some help from the defensive tackles, it’ll make their jobs even easier.
With a less experienced secondary -- particularly at cornerback -- Hutchinson and Paye will be more important than ever. Getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be the only way for Michigan to conceal weak spots in coverage.
Starters: Carlo Kemp and Chris Hinton
Confidence: 100% and 95%
Kemp will be one of the starters at defensive tackle -- that’s a slam dunk. Hinton might not be a lock, but it would be a surprise to see anyone else take his spot.
Kemp isn’t going to put up an eye-catching stat line, but he’s reliable on the field and in the locker room.
Hinton is a former five-star recruit who started to make some progress late in 2019. The true freshman made a tackle for loss against Ohio State and was playing starter’s snaps by the end of the year.
Considering how much Michigan struggled to get pressure up the middle last season, Hinton could be the most important player on the defense. If he realizes his potential, Hinton’s best-case scenario could be a Maurice Hurst-like disruptor.
Starter: Cam McGrone
After taking over as the starting middle linebacker last season against Wisconsin, McGrone was probably the best player on the roster through the rest of the year.
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The former No. 1 overall linebacker recruit drew comparisons to Devin Bush, and while that’s a lofty expectation, he was that good.
McGrone has sideline-to-sideline speed and is a sure tackler. That’s exactly what Brown needs at the heart of his defense. Expect McGrone to be one of the best linebackers in the nation.
Starter: Josh Ross
The reason McGrone got a chance to break out midway through 2019 was an injury that sidelined Ross for almost the entire Big Ten schedule. Now, as he prepares to return to the starting lineup, Ross will do so as the weak-side linebacker next to McGrone.
Ross made 61 tackles and five tackles for loss in 2018. He was limited to just 18 tackles in parts of four games last season, but on the bright side, he preserved his redshirt and could remain at Michigan through 2021.
Ross doesn’t have McGrone’s athleticism, but he has speed and can deliver a big hit. Ross and McGrone will be a solid, experienced tandem at the top of the linebacker depth chart.
Starter: Michael Barrett
One of the two actual position battles remaining on defense appears to be at viper, but Barrett has a leg up on redshirt freshman Anthony Solomon, from what coaches have said.
Barrett was recruited with the viper position in mind, and now that Khaleke Hudson has finally vacated the role after three years, Barrett has his chance to step in.
Viper is one of the unique components of Brown’s defense, and it requires a versatile player who can make plays behind the line of scrimmage as well as in coverage. Barrett was recruited as a dual-threat quarterback, so he has the athleticism to play in the secondary. The question is whether he can also be a factor against the run or as a pass rusher.
Starter: Ben VanSumeren
Is this really a starting spot? There’s definitely some debate. Last season, Josh Uche was so successful in this role that it became a staple of the defense, but now that he’s gone, Brown might use less of it if he simply wants to get his best 11 players on the field.
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Brown revealed earlier this month that VanSumeren -- who switched from running back to fullback to linebacker -- is at the top of the depth chart for SAM linebacker. Whether that’s still the case with less than two weeks until kickoff is unclear, but it sounded like VanSumeren had a grip on the role.
The fact that someone could move from the offensive backfield immediately into a starting defensive role might tell you something about the depth at that position, but countless position changes have worked out for Michigan under Harbaugh. If he thinks VanSumeren can flourish at linebacker, he deserves some benefit of the doubt.
Starters: Vincent Gray and Gemon Green
Confidence: 100% and 40%
The most worrisome position on Michigan’s roster is cornerback, as Mike Zordich tries to replace two outstanding cover guys in Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas.
It’s obvious Gray will be the team’s No. 1 corner to begin the season. He earned close to starter reps as the No. 3 option last year, and coaches haven’t shied away from naming him the top option.
But the second cornerback spot is difficult position to predict because none of the candidates have played significant snaps in college.
Harbaugh mentioned Monday night that Sammy Faustin has moved from safety to cornerback to compete for the No. 2 spot, and that doesn’t inspire much confidence in those who were already in the mix.
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But Michigan has plenty of talent. Jalen Perry and Andre Seldon were four-star recruits. Green and D.J. Turner were high three-stars. All four of them, along with Faustin, have the potential to be successful, especially considering Zordich’s track record developing corners at Michigan.
They’re all inexperienced and unproven, though.
Harbaugh mentioned Faustin and Green as the top two options, so for this prediction, I’ll go with the one who didn’t have to switch positions late in fall camp. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of these five ultimately get the nod.
Starters: Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins
Confidence: 100% and 100%
It was a bit of a surprise when Hill -- the No. 1 safety in the 2019 recruiting class -- didn’t begin his freshman year as a starter, but by the end of the season, he was almost always on the field.
Harbaugh said Monday that Hill might be the most talented player on the team and named him the top safety. That’s great news for Michigan fans, who want to see more speed and playmaking ability in the secondary.
Hawkins didn’t come with nearly as much fanfare -- originally committing to Michigan as a wide receiver in 2016 before ultimately enrolling with the class of 2017. He immediately moved to the secondary and debuted as a regular in 2018. Now he’s coming off a season in which he started 10 games.
With Hill and Hawkins, Michigan has a nice mix of speed, experience and playmaking ability. That should provide a safety net for whoever ends up playing cornerback.