Can the Michigan Defense Repeat its Success in 2022?

Michigan Defense

Can the Michigan Defense Repeat its Success in 2022?

The complete turnaround that the Michigan defense made from 2020 to 2021 was unexpected. In 2020, the defense allowed a total of 207 points scored against them throughout their six-game season. In 2021, Michigan played 14 total games and only allowed 36 more points than they had the year prior. From 2020 to 2021 the Wolverine’s defense jumped from 95th to 16th in the FBS for points allowed per game. In this off-season, the defense will need to make further strides. They are losing key players on the roster and the coaching staff and will need to put in serious work to maintain the success from 2021.

Players Leaving

Michigan is losing an impressive six defensive players to the NFL draft this season. Most notably of those are Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who became a powerful edge-rushing one-two punch on the Wolverine’s defensive front. They combined for 25 sacks on the season and are both projected to go early in the first round. Together, Hutchinson and Ojabo provided pressure on the quarterback that considerably lessened the load on the secondary.

The secondary is also experiencing big losses. Key starters like Daxton Hill, Brad Hawkins, and Vincent Gray are all moving on. This group will need to be completely revamped in preparation for their annual showdown against Ohio State. In 2021, Michigan’s strong secondary successfully impeded the Buckeyes offense that tends to run up the score on them. Still, the Buckeyes seem to churn out superstars at wide receiver year after year. Without a well-trained and athletic secondary, Michigan will stand no chance against Jaxon Smith-Njigba and company in 2022. All roads to success pass through Ryan Day’s squad for Michigan and the rest of the Big 10 East. Without a strong secondary, your odds of beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten Title seemingly vanish.

Young Talent on Defense

After accounting for graduating seniors, transfers, and the players lost to the NFL draft, only four of Michigan’s defensive starters will be returning in 2022. Despite this, there are plenty of guys coming back who played significant time this season. Safeties Rod Moore and RJ Moten proved to be reliable backups who made some stellar plays. These young and fairly inexperienced safeties will look like seasoned veterans compared to the class of 2022. Players in this class will need to make an impact very early in their careers. Among others, five-star cornerback Will Johnson should be ready to play come August. Johnson enrolled early at Michigan and joined Mike Macdonald’s defense in their practices before the Orange Bowl. These extra few months of training will poise him to be an important part of the defense next season.

Coaching Changes

The discontinuity from this season to next goes beyond the roster. The coaching staff is turning out to have some considerable changes as well. Defensive line coach Shaun Nua accepted a position at USC shortly after the season ended. Since then, Harbaugh named Steve Elston as Nua’s replacement. Elston is a Michigan man who played linebacker under Lloyd Carr in the ’90s. Elston comes to Ann Arbor from Notre Dame where he had an impressive tenure. In South Bend, he developed a stout defensive front and coached eleven draft picks. Elston has also been touted for his recruiting skills. Having Elston on staff should bode well for both Michigan’s defense and recruiting in the long run. 

While Elston’s hire was great news in Ann Arbor, developments at the defensive coordinator position were less positive. MacDonald accepted a position in the same role with the Baltimore Ravens. MacDonald coached in Baltimore for six seasons prior to joining Michigan. His work there earned him a glowing recommendation from the Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh. It isn’t hard to believe that Harbaugh might want MacDonald back after seeing his quick success with Michigan. There may be some disappointed Wolverines, but nobody can blame Coach MacDonald for wanting to coach at the next level.

Defense Moving Forward

The reality is, no top-tier college football program is immune to turnover both on the roster and on the staff. Elite players are eager to get to the NFL. Elite coordinators are looking for bigger opportunities. True top-tier programs are able to succeed despite the constant turnover. The championship standard has been set in Ann Arbor, and fans are eager to see if the Michigan defense can prove that 2021 was no fluke.

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