Michigan Football Defense: Goodbye Viper, Hello Reaper

Names aside, the Michigan defensive players seem confident that they'll bounce back from a lackluster 2020 season.
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To say that the Michigan defense struggled during the 2020 season would be a bit of an understatement.  In fact, the Wolverines fielded a defensive unit that was in the bottom half of nearly ever statistical category last season - in spite of having one of the most talented rosters in the country.  

Out of 127 teams, here's where the Wolverines ranked defensively in each category:

  • Total Defense: 89th
  • Third Down Conversion Percentage: 101st 
  • Passing Yards Allowed Per Game: 96th
  • Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game: 79th
  • Tackles For Loss: 119th

As a result of their poor performance, defensive coordinator Don Brown would be fired following the 2020 season after spending five seasons in Ann Arbor.  In 2016, Brown's unit was No. 2 in the country in yards allowed per play. In 2017 he slipped to No. 6 and then dropped two more spots in 2018. In 2019 his defense was at No. 10 in the category and last year it fell all the way down to No. 56. To make matters worse, Brown's defense gave up 34.5 points per game and 429.3 yards per game. That made for one of the worst units in the Big Ten and entire country. His defense also gave up 118 points in Michigan's last two games against Ohio State. 

At the very least, a change defensively was absolutely necessary at Michigan.  Rather than attempting to move existing pieces around, Harbaugh opted for a complete overhaul defensively.  

Meeting with the media on Monday, senior defensive lineman Taylor Upshaw said the change to a more youthful defensive coaching staff has definitely made a difference.

"I definitely think youth is a big part." said Upshaw. "I mean, when you're 30, you're closer to understanding what it's like being a 21 year old than compared to when you're older. They're young guys, they're bringing juice and they're making it fun."

Upshaw also gave some insight into how some of the key members on this new-look defense will be utilized up front at that edge position.

"We call ourselves the 'Reapers'. This is a really important position in the defense. The position we play allows us to make a lot plays, so I think it's going to come down to a lot of games where we're going to have to affect the game a lot." 

Upshaw continued:

"It's mainly a stand-up edge position.  I'm mainly going to be rushing, but there's also dropping too.  It's like a pass-rush, but you're also - I still get in a 3-point stance.  I still mix it up.  But it's a stand up edge position."

In addition to Upshaw, veteran defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, Jaylen Harrell, Braiden McGregor and Nolan Knight make up the group. When asked about why they now call themselves the "Reapers", Upshaw elaborated on what it means.

"I think mainly it's just to wreak havoc. That’s what I want us to go into games - that’s what I want us to do. I know the talent we have. We have a lot of talent in this room, undeniable talent. I think this defense is going to give us the chance to eat, I think it’s going to give us the chance to show our true ability - and when you see us on Saturdays, we’re going to be the reapers. We’re going to be wreaking havoc."