A year ago, first-year defensive line coach Shaun Nua inherited a defensive line tasked with replacing two impact players in defensive ends Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary. Add in a lack of depth at the defensive tackle position, and the effectiveness of the unit heading into 2019 could be described as uncertain at best.
The emergence of rising junior defensive Aidan Hutchinson and progression of senior Kwity Paye not only helped the Wolverines’ defensive line avoid a significant drop-off in production, but actually improve in critical metrics.
Compared to the 2018 squad, Michigan held two more opponents under 100 yards rushing (six in 2019, four in 2018), surrendered less rushing yards per game (121.7 in 2019, 127.4 in 2018), less yards per carry (3.2 in 2019, 3.7 in 2018) and saw an increase in sacks per game (2.8 in 2019, 2.6 in 2018).
Despite the stellar numbers, U-M’s lack of experience, size on the interior - D-Tackle starters Carlo Kemp (6-3, 286 pounds) and Michael Dwumfour (6-2, 282) both weighed in under 290 pounds - and chaos-causing contributors along the interior of the line was exploited in its four losses, all against foes possessing strong ground attacks.
Wisconsin bludgeoned the Maize and Blue for 359 yards and five touchdowns on 6.3 yards per carry; Ohio State rambled for 264 yards and four scores on 5.3 yards per attempt; Alabama stockpiled 153 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per rush; and Penn State, while held in check for much of the second half, managed 101 yards and a touchdown on 3.5 yards per carry.
In total, Michigan yielded an average of 219.3 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns per game in those four setbacks, as opposed to 88.1 rushing yards and one score per game in its eight wins.
Heading into 2020, Nua’s group boasts a combination of returning contributors and high-potential underclassmen that should be better equipped to handle elite rushing offenses, only losing defensive end Mike Danna to graduation and Dwumfour to the transfer portal.
Danna was solid in his only year in Ann Arbor, but his production (38 tackles, three for loss) is replaceable. While the loss of Dwumfour hurts a bit strictly due to the number of available and battle-tested bodies at the tackle position, but he rarely made an impact last season, finishing with nine total tackles.
Although technically not considered a defensive linemen, departed rush linebacker Josh Uche played a unique role in Don Brown’s defensive scheme and at least a portion of his production, which totaled 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, will need to be replaced by the defensive line.
Hutchinson was, arguably, the Wolverines' top defender last year, adding a pass-rush dimension to his abilities while he continued to set a strong edge against outside runs and cause havoc in the backfield. Although he will never be considered a speed rusher, he still managed 4.5 sacks and 10.0 tackles for loss in addition to 68 total tackles. He also proved versatile, lining up at every position along the defensive line at times on passing downs.
Paye’s quickness at the other bookend position provides a greater threat to quarterbacks dropping back and he is also solid against the run, although an increase in production from his 6.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss as a junior will be critical in the Maize and Blue’s overall ability to disrupt opposing offenses.
U-M still needs at least two viable options to emerge behind its solid starting bookends, and redshirt junior Luiji Vilain is a player to keep and eye on. An excellent athlete, Vilain has struggled with injuries early in his career but has the potential to be a difference-maker if he can stay healthy. Ultra-athletic redshirt freshman David Obajo and redshirt sophomore Julius Welschof are two other candidates that could step in and produce if given the opportunity.
Freshman defensive end Braden McGregor is the top recruit from the incoming class, but early playing time will be dependent on his recovery from a season-ending knee injury suffered during his final high school season.
The return of Kemp for a fifth season at the defensive tackle slot was an underrated offseason win for the Wolverine defense from a depth and experience standpoint, but as a former linebacker and defensive end, his effectiveness is limited by his size. He has appeared in 39 games donning the Maize and Blue, but has recorded just 2.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss.
It would be a plus for redshirt junior Donovan Jeter (likely in his final opportunity to prove himself) to provide more production and meaningful reps. A 2019 spring and fall-camp standout, Jeter barely played on football Saturdays, one of the most mystifying disappearances of any Wolverine last year.
Sophomore Chris Hinton (6-4, 303) and redshirt freshman Mazi Smith (6-3, 305) are two former blue-chip recruits that very well could provide much-needed heft and interior threats at some point during their time on campus and, realistically, the Wolverines need that time to be now. Smith appeared in just one game as a freshman, but Hinton saw action in 12 games and was taking snaps away from Dwumfour over the final month.
Their development and ability to rattle opposing offenses consistently could be the X-factor that transforms a good U-M defense into a great one.
Prediction: Michigan’s defensive line will not only be its best defensive unit, but the overall top position group on the team. Hutchinson made a phenomenal jump in production between his freshman and sophomore season, and he will threaten the 10-sack plateau while continuing to stuff opposing rush attacks en route to first-team All Big Ten honors.
On the other end, Paye will lead the Wolverines with 10-plus sacks and at least 14 tackles for loss, and Vilain will finally shake the injury bug and show glimpses of his athleticism, registering four or five sacks on the season.
With a year of experience under his belt, Hinton will secure a starting role in the middle and provide much-need quarterback pressure from the inside while Smith will push Kemp hard for first-team reps. In the end, Kemp’s experience will win out and he’ll have a productive final season but Smith will still get opportunities and show flashes of his potential.
Will all of this be enough to stop elite ground offenses? Yes and no. There will be a noticeable improvement, especially in games played in Ann Arbor, but the U-M rush defense will once again have issues against Ohio State. The Wolverines are yielding an average of 262.8 rushing yards per game to the Buckeyes under Jim Harbaugh, and expect another big output from the OSU offense in Columbus.