Everything Mike Elston said about Michigan football defensive front in Week 2

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan football turned heads all across the conference and the nation when, in the season opener, the Wolverines managed seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss.

The belief going into 2022 was that the defense as a whole would take a step back due to the departures of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. While Colorado State isn’t exactly a big litmus test, it was still outperforming expectations.

The man coaching the defensive line in particular is Mike Elston, the former Wolverines player who spent his last decade at Notre Dame with Brian Kelly. But when Kelly went to LSU, Elston decided to return to his alma mater.

Speaking on Wednesday for the first time with the media, Elston shared his thoughts on the defensive line, ranging from the overall production, what they did well, what he wants to see more of, Eyabi Anoma joining the team, and much more. Here is everything he had to say.

Opening statement

All right, well, I’ll kick it off real quick.

So just starting off, I want to give a shout-out to coach Dylan Roney, who works with me directly with the defensive line. We worked primarily with our edge position, and he’s a fantastic resource. I don’t know that he gets enough credit, because he’s behind the scenes a little bit, but he does a great job for us. And I want to make sure I put that out there.

In game one, what we felt like we did well was played hard, ran to the football and played very physical up front, did a really good job of block destruction across the board. Our substitutions, we rotate a lot of guys in and when you do that, sometimes on game one, you can have some mistakes and 10 guys on the field, 12 guys on the field. Our guys handled that really, really well. We had some drives that extended a little bit and we’re able to rally four new guys in, five new guys in, and I love doing that. I think that keeps guys fresh. I think production goes up for guys that are able to go out there and know they’re gonna play four or five plays, and then when the drive extends, we can get them out.

I feel like we had great push in the pocket,t for the most part. Tere’s areas of improvement that we’re going to work on that we’re working on this week. But you know, it was a very clean game. No penalties up front. Game one, sometimes you get guys where they’re excited and they jump offsides, and there were a lot of hard counts in the game. And I feel like our guys handled that really, really well.

Things that we would like to see as improvements in Week 2 for the front would be an even better effort running to the football, we can improve there. Even though we did a great job in game one, we can make a huge stride in game two. More consistent block destruction and in what we’re doing. Better get-offs — I feel like as the game went on, we were more concerned about trying to see what they’re doing and reading blocks, instead of just coming off the football and knocking guys back. So would love to see an improvement in that area, across the front.

For the inside guys,  the D-tackles, I would really like to see more edge pass rush. They ran down the middle of guys at times. I feel like with the guys that we have, we have guys that can be explosive and get on edges and really create more havoc in the backfield and passing situations. So we’d love to see an improvement there. And overall, I think we can be more disruptive in the pass rush, I think we left a lot of production. We didn’t finish a couple moves or a couple movements. We fell off the quarterback, we got to be able to club and wrap the quarterback and get on his throwing arm and taken down. So we left the production on the field. So we’d love to see improvements in those areas and getting in Week 2 and moving on.

What we learned about the front, we got a lot of guys who can play winning football. We rotate a lot of guys in, and I think the next step as we get into game two, Week 2 is we’re trying to build guys that can play championship-level football. And when you go on the football field, you’re gonna be expected to do that. Early on it’s you’re seeing what guys can do and they’re out there and a lot of guys played very, very well. But you know, our goal is to be playing championship-level football as we get into the rest of the season.

The veteran guys played really well. Mazi, Kris Jenkins, Mike Mo, Braiden, Jaylen Harrell, Upshaw, Julius — all those guys played really well as expected. They’re veteran guys that, even though they didn’t play a ton of snaps last year, they were around it, they were learning things and they got in and did a really nice job. The young guys stepped up. I felt like they did a really good job also for their first game experience. You got Mason Graham who came here mid-year, had a really good spring and a really good fall camp. And went out there and played very well. Rayshaun Benny played well, George Rooks, Derrick Moore, even a young man, Kenneth Grant, who just got here and in June, went out there and did a fantastic job. So really excited about the young guys, a lot more to grow, we got areas we can grow in.

I love our transfers. Eyabi went out there, explosive. You saw him make plays and he’s gonna be a great addition. He’s got great energy, great excitement, very coachable, great attitude. And then Cam Goode — Cam Goode went in there and played, I guess it was like 9-10 reps and did a great job.

So, excited about the group, and overall, I personally, I like to rotate guys in. I think it keeps them fresh. I think it prepares them for opportunities moving forward when, knock on wood, you end up having an injuryThey’re able to step into those roles and get significant playing time and have already been in the games. So they’ve already been in the battles and they’re learning and getting better and progressing. So, with that, I’ll open it up for questions.

Is the rotation set in stone or a work in progress?

Well, game-by-game, you know how guys performed in the last game, how guys performed in practice. You know, nothing’s guaranteed, but when guys see that they’re going to have an opportunity to play and rotate in, the practices are better, right? Because there’s a buy-in and there’s an understanding. ‘OK, well, if I perform in practice, and I do as coaches are asking me to do, then there’s going to be an opportunity for me to play.’ It may not be 20 snaps, but you know, half a dozen snaps to 15 snaps a game is a lot more than a lot of these young guys played last year.

So it’s game-by-game. We sit down as a defensive staff, we detail out, on a script — who’s going to start this drive, who is going to start this drive, who’s going to rally in if it extends? And then, when you get into your substitution packages, those are typically your best guys. Your starters are your starters in your substitution packages.

What are Dylan Roney's responsibilities?

He does a tremendous amount for our defense, our defensive staff, but specifically in meetings, he spends time with the edge position on the football field and in practice, he directs them in individual drills and things like that. So, obviously, we meet as a group and talk about what we want to accomplish for the meetings in the day. But there’s a lot of confidence in him. And he’s a very bright young coach and does a fantastic job with those guys. And the guys love him.

Do you have a sense of the team speed?

Yeah, I think it’s a very talented defense, high-level skill, great speed. I think that there’s strength at every position, you know. So yeah, I think it’s a very fast defense.

What's the challenge and/or benefit to coaching the position the year after Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo were here?

The great thing is that there are guys here that can fill into those roles. They’re going to look different, they’re going to be different, there’s going to become different opportunities for guys to get the production in a different way, let’s say. Like you saw on Saturday, we’re doing some different things up front to create some disruption and pressure, and hopefully, that continues to carry on, and we’ll continue to grow those things.

But yeah, it’s a huge challenge to replace the No. 2 overall draft pick and another first-rounder or, you know, early second-rounder. But the challenge is there. And I think that as a staff, we’ve handled it really well. And I think as a group, the guys understand the expectations, and they’ve handled it well. And I think it’s only going to get better as we move forward.

His reaction to Eyabi Anoma joining the team and his early production

Well, the first reaction was excitement. I remember recruiting him out of high school when I was at a different school. A very high-level skill player that can add a lot to what we’re doing defensively.

So No. 1 was excitement. And we threw him in there when he got here, and we have special meetings with him, individual meetings with him, and we’re trying to catch them up on all the fine details of what this defense, the defensive scheme, and we’ll continue to do that to catch him up. But, we didn’t slow down much of what we were doing in practice or for him to catch up. He’s just kind of dove right in and done a really nice job with it.

The dynamic of him and George Helow working with the edge rushers

So George and I, we just broke a meeting and talking about this week’s third down stuff, and we’ll spend some time on the field individually today together as a front seven — work in different things. So, I love George, our dynamic’s great. Great working relationship, great friends off the field. He’s a professional at what he does, and I really enjoy working with him.

On the freshmen making an early impact

Those three freshmen, you know, they might be some of the best that I’ve had a chance to work with over my 20-plus years, just because- – you knew right away. They were trained well in high school, that’s No. 1. They got great training and learned fundamentals there and then they come in here, and — we’re going against a really good line and they’re holding their own and were able to push guys back.

They integrated very, very well for young guys, and you don’t see that often. So, it was early, to answer your question, noticed that very early that they’ll be able to help us play winning football to championship-level football.

How will the line be challenged against the run?

We’re preparing for that every day, we our we go against our offense every day. And they’re a very good run team, obviously. We’ll be tested this week.  I think Hawaii does a great job with — they don’t do a lot in the run game in terms of the different types of plays, but they’re really good at what they do. I know their stats may not show that. But in terms of how feisty their O-line is, and the leverage they play with, it’ll be a bigger challenge this week for us in the run game.

We’ll have a better sense. But we do run drills against our offense every day in the way we block destruct and take on double teams, combination blocks and single blocks. I think that we’re ready for that fight moving forward.

Does he talk to Eyabi Anoma about his past?

No, I don’t. I live in the present with a lot of what I do and how I coach the guys. And I don’t want to bring up anything negative. And in his journey, for me, everything for him here, so far, has been very, very positive.

The way I coach and the way I want to build my relationship with the guys is in the present. So I don’t dive back in any of that and try to figure out his psyche. I’ve never been a coach like that. I just prefer to see who he is on my own and build that relationship that way. And, then support him in the way that I can.

Would he have preferred a tougher schedule to start the year?

I’m indifferent to it. I think our guys get excited to play whoever we’re going to play. The big games are a lot of fun. But the opponent is going to be there on Saturday, whoever it is. And I think that, as a coach, whoever we’re playing, you’re trying to do your best to prepare them as if this is the best team that you’re going to play all season. So, maybe the environment would be different, and the excitement would be higher. But either way, I think that when you live in the present, and you go day-to-day, you’re gonna play who they put in front of you. And I don’t have a preference, to be honest with you, to answer your question.

How much more do you learn when you play a tougher team?

Oh, yeah — I think that there’s definitely a lie detector in there. Right? Like, you can figure out how far along you are maybe a little quicker. We plan to rotate a bunch of guys in this week regardless of whoever we played. I think that to keep depth along the front, to keep guys fresh, to keep guys engaged. Because everybody’s working hard, everybody’s — the fall camp and going through the grind and they want an opportunity to go out there and showcase what they’ve learned and how they’ve improved. It may be minimal reps, but it’s still they’re getting to go out in Michigan Stadium and perform.

And so whoever you open up with, the No. 1 team in the country or the unranked opponent, the goal is to put as many guys out there as we can to show that they’ve grown and that they can play championship-level football.

How has Jaylen Harrell grown as a pass rusher?

He’s probably graded out the highest in along the front. Especially — I mean, he’s come a long way. He’s so doggone smart. And, he’s very instinctive. He uses his leverage well, he plays long. Jaylen has had a really good fall camp. And you saw on the first game, he had high-level production in there for us.

The players seem so positive

They’re a great group to coach. They’re fun, they show up every day to work. They’ve got great energy. And there’s some unique personalities in there as you guys have met when they stood in front of the camera. But you can go right down the list of guys that bring great energy. And football is important to them. They want to be great. There’s not a guy in the room that doesn’t want to be as great as he can be. Which, you know, that’s saying a lot. So it’s a great group of guys to coach.

Story originally appeared on Wolverines Wire