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In Hutchinson and Ojabo’s Wake, Others Step Up

This offseason, Michigan had a seemingly impossible task ahead of it.

Edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo’s names were called in the first and second rounds of the NFL Draft last year, leaving two very large holes for the Wolverines to fill.

But already, some have started to fill that void — not one or two breakout stars, but instead, a committee of young and driven players.

“As a combined group, and the individuals as well, our group is really strong this year,” edge Braiden McGregor said. “We don’t really have a weak spot, we can rotate people in. … We have six or seven guys that can play, there’s really no drop off.”

McGregor believes that having so many players stepping up in production is partly a product of working in practice against a perennial top offensive line in the country.

“(Our) offensive line — that’s one of the best offensive lines in the country, year in and year out. I think going against them, we work a move on them and we’re like, this works, this doesn’t work.”

Bringing that knowledge into the game is critical. Knowing the techniques and habits of an elite line can do wonders come game time. And those benefits only compound when a D-Line room is as close as Michigan’s is. All the edges regularly exchange tips, offer advice, and have ultimate trust in each other.

And for McGregor in particular, that exchange of information has been crucial as he’s gotten back up to speed with the game of football.

His senior year, McGregor suffered an ACL injury that sidelined him for the remainder of that season, and a significant portion of the 2020 season. Last year was McGregor’s first experience with college football — its increased speed, intensity, and challenges — without having played the game for over a year.

But, McGregor wasn’t thrown into the fire straight away. After all, the Wolverines had Hutchinson and Ojabo. But this year, McGregor has expected to take a much larger role. And McGregor has grown much more comfortable with the college game this year.

“Last year, it was like my first time playing,” McGregor said. “I felt like everything was so fast. And this year I feel like I have a much better grasp of the defense, as well as the knowledge of the offense. I feel like I can slow the game down a little bit more, be able to actually read my key and read the quarterback.”

Some of that increased confidence can be attributed to Hutchinson, who roomed with McGregor for Fall camp in 2021. Hutchinson took McGregor under his wing, and offered advice in every aspect of the game. But what McGregor found most important was his preparation and mindset in practice.

“Honestly (I picked up) a little bit of everything,” McGregor said. “(Like) the way he fuels his body. I’d see him every day and he’d have these little packets of electrolytes in the morning before practice. During camp, just going to bed super early, He was just telling me all this stuff… You look at him and how well he’s doing now, and it’s like, there’s a reason everyone looked up to him last year.”

As a committee, the effect Hutchinson has left on the team can clearly be felt.

“The most I picked up from him is that how you practice is how you play in games,” McGregor said. “People struggle with this sometimes, because you just had a long day of classes, you lifted in the morning, now you gotta come to practice and you’re just trying to get through it. But I remember every single day Aiden would go out there and you could tell he was serious, treating it like it was a game. I think that has really transferred to us as a group this year.”

And this approach in practice has worked well for the Wolverines’ defense. Michigan has already logged 29 sacks this year, and is on pace to outdo last year’s sack numbers. Without a focus on one or two players to make the play, the load is more evenly distributed. And having a revolving door of edges creates constantly different looks for the offensive line, overwhelming them even further.

To those who questioned who would step up — turns out that answer came sooner than expected.