For a second-consecutive season, Michigan’s linebacker room will be partially guided by a new position coach. Following the departure of Anthony Campanile to the NFL, 21-year coaching veteran Brian Jean-Mary will be tasked with molding an intriguing mix of experience, youth and talent in his first campaign with the Wolverines alongside coordinator Don Brown.
Atop Jean-Mary’s to-do list will be helping redshirt sophomore MIKE linebacker Cam McGrone transform the glimpses of potential he displayed a year ago into sustainable dominance.
Filling in for redshirt junior Josh Ross, who was injured during an early-season loss to Wisconsin and missed the next nine games, McGrone solidified his spot in the center of the Maize and Blue defense, showing bursts of elite athleticism, strong instincts and contact-courage when meeting opposing ball carriers and offensive linemen with force at the point of attack.
With the physical tools to reach all-conference or better status in 2020, he needs to add sustainability to his game and mitigate mental lapses in both run reads and coverage that were too frequent his redshirt freshman campaign.
He finished with 66 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks, but made three or fewer stops in four different contests and registered just three tackles in the backfield over the last six games of the season.
Still, the potential for McGrone is to have an impact similar to former Michigan All-American Devin Bush as a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine that can help mask youthful mistakes at other defensive positions.
Ross is currently projected to fill the void left by graduate Jordan Glasgow at the WILL linebacker slot, and is expected to enter spring ball with a clean bill of health.
The transition from MIKE to WILL should be a smooth one for Ross, who has proven to be a versatile player that effectively manned the WILL spot for stretches during his 61-tackle sophomore season. His experience combined with McGrone’s raw talent should elevate the two into one of the top linebacking duos in the conference.
Veteran Devin Gil is expected back for a fifth-year, providing valuable experience as a reserve. Gil has seen action in 40 games in his career, including 14 starts, notching 47 tackles, including 4.0 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Disproportionate youth characterizes the remainder of the middle linebacker depth, adding an air of both uncertainty and possibility. With a year of practice under his belt, and some experience on special teams, sophomore Anthony Solomon could be a viable reserve.
Redshirt freshman Charles Thomas could also push for fill-in reps, and Nikhai Hill-Green, Kalel Mullings, Osman Savage and Cornell Wheeler will vie for available snaps as true freshman if needed.
At viper, redshirt sophomore Michael Barrett is the favorite for the spot vacated by the graduation of Khaleke Hudson. Barrett is an intriguing prospect. As a former standout prep quarterback, U-M’s staff tested him at several positions before finding him a permanent home as a viper last year. He is an outstanding athlete that has seemingly been being groomed to take over for Hudson.
Brown has used the SAM linebacker for a variety of roles in the past. In 2017-18, it was a de facto run stopper that also occupied attention on blitzes to free up Bush for open alleys to the quarterback.
In 2019, the position was a defensive end-linebacker hybrid specifically tailored to utilize departed Josh Uche’s unique pass-rushing talents, and Uche responded with 11.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. The most probable option for replacing this production will come from a more traditional pass rushing specialist along the defensive line, including someone like redshirt freshman David Ojabo, but we'll see how Brown creatively uses his personnel in the fall.
Prediction: Jean-Mary has a dynamic duo in the middle in McGrone and Ross, who are not only talented on the field but have the needed demeanors to grow into leadership roles for a linebacker corps littered with inexperience.
McGrone will display the same eye-popping athleticism while showing more consistency than he did in 2019, and should reach first-team all-conference status, but youth at the defensive tackle spot will make life more difficult for him. Against Washington and during early portions of Big Ten play, any defensive lines struggles to prevent opposing offensive linemen from reaching the second level will hinder McGrone from truly playing with the sideline-to-sideline freedom that Bush thrived in.
If either sophomore Chris Hinton or redshirt freshman Mazi Smith can step in and devour blockers at the defensive tackle spot, however, McGrone will have a special season.
Having Ross’s size and steady run-stopping abilities at the WILL spot will give Michigan’s coaches more freedom to use McGrone elite athleticism to blitz and cause chaos on the backfield.
If he stays healthy. Ross's experience and consistency will allow him to actually finish with more tackles than McGrone—somewhere in the 85-95 range—but McGrone will consistently disrupt opposing offenses and record at least 11 tackles for loss and between six and eight sacks.
Michigan needs more impact plays from the Viper spot—a position that is designed to cause havoc. While he was a solid hand for three years, Hudson totaled only 7.0 tackles for loss during his junior and senior campaigns after stockpiling 18.5 as a sophomore. Despite potential growing pains, Barrett has the athleticism to create the kind of disruption needed from this position and this will vault him into the starting slot. He won’t amass 18.5 tackles for loss, but will surpass the 3.5 plateau that Hudson finished with in each of the last two seasons.
Solomon will see time at Viper, but will also overtake Gil as the first reserve for the MIKE and WILL spots by mid-season, proving to be a very versatile role player that will show signs of pushing for a more prominent spot a year or two down the road.