How Michigan football plans to 'wreak havoc' through its linebackers

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Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·4 min read
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Earlier this offseason, Taylor Upshaw came up with a nickname for Michigan football's outside linebackers: “The reapers.”

It is meant to reflect the on-field role that Upshaw and his teammates have within the Wolverines' new defense.

“I’ll take credit for this one,” Upshaw said Monday afternoon. “I came up with the reapers. But I think, mainly, it’s just to wreak havoc. That’s what I want us to do. Because 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 a chance to eat. I think it’s going to give us a chance to show our true ability. And when you see us on Saturdays, we’re going to be reapers. We’re going to be wreaking havoc.”

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Michigan defensive lineman Taylor Upshaw, left, and defensive back Makari Paige celebrate after sacking Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford during the second half of Michigan's 27-17 loss at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.
Michigan defensive lineman Taylor Upshaw, left, and defensive back Makari Paige celebrate after sacking Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford during the second half of Michigan's 27-17 loss at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

The public has yet to get a glimpse of Michigan's new defensive scheme under coordinator Mike Macdonald, but based on what Upshaw and others have said this spring, one safe assumption is the Wolverines' most talented pass-rushers will play more two-point stance, similar to how Matthew Judon or Yannick Ngakoue did for the Baltimore Ravens (where Macdonald previously coached) in 2020.

“For me, I’m mainly going to be rushing (the passer),” Upshaw said. “But there’s also dropping (into coverage), too. It’s like a pass-rush (position), but I still get in my three-point stance, I still mix it up. But it’s a stand-up edge position.”

Other outside linebackers (or reapers, to use Upshaw's parlance) include Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, Jaylen Harrell, Braiden McGregor and Nolan Knight, Upshaw said.

It is a unique combination: Hutchinson (perhaps the most talented player on the defense) and Upshaw previously played with their hand in the dirt as defensive ends, while players like Ojabo and Harrell were classified as SAM linebackers — a hybrid position that wasn't part of Michigan's previous base defense but was used plenty (recall Josh Uche's role in 2018 and 2019).

Now, all those players are working at the same spot, with the same objective: Get after the quarterback.

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“The position we play allows us to make a lot of plays,” Upshaw said. “We’re going to have to affect the game a lot.”

According to Upshaw, the outside linebackers spend plenty of time with defensive analyst Ryan Osborn, and defensive line coach Shaun Nua “is more like a (defensive) tackles coach right now.”

Osborn was hired this offseason after previously working as UT-Martin's defensive line coach. Before that, he was a defensive graduate assistant at Florida and Mississippi State, working for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham (who Macdonald worked under at Georgia).

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As an analyst, Osborn works primarily with Nua but isn't allowed to run meetings or coach on the field. He can break down film, prepare play cards and meetings and be on the field during practices to chart plays and provide feedback; he's also taken on a mentorship role with Upshaw's position group.

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“Honestly, Osborn is one of the best coaches I’ve had a chance to play under,” Upshaw said. “He’s young, he’s funny. He gets what it’s like, like I said earlier, being in the position that we’re in. But, also he knows what he’s talking about. He’s a good coach. You can just tell with his passion, the things he’s getting us right with, our technique, I mean, he’s legit. I’m happy he’s with us.”

When asked for the team's best pass-rushers, Upshaw named himself, Hutchinson, Ojabo, Mike Morris, McGregor and Harrell. It is no coincidence that most — if not all — of those players are part of “the reapers.”

“I have big expectations for myself and for my teammates,” Upshaw said.

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Michigan Wolverines content.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Michigan football's outside LBs call themselves 'the reapers'