Michigan football's Jim Harbaugh believes Wolverines will be 'pretty darn good on defense'

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Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·4 min read
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Michigan football is still learning a new defensive scheme.

Yet coach Jim Harbaugh seems to believe good things are ahead for the unit, which struggled in 2020.

“We’ve got a defense that is sound and good,” Harbaugh said on the "In the Trenches" podcast with Jon Jansen. “They’re fitting the players to the scheme and how their talents are going to be used. And I see good players. I think it’s a process, it’s a daily thing, but I see us being pretty darn good on defense."

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After a period of continued defensive success under former coordinator Don Brown, the Wolverines hit a wall last season: They allowed 34.5 points and 434 yards per game, finishing No. 95 in scoring defense and No. 89 in total defense — their worst marks yet under Harbaugh.

Michigan defensive lineman Donovan Jeter celebrates after tackling 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 Donovan Jeter celebrates after tackling Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford during the second half of Michigan's 27-17 loss at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

During this offseason, Brown was fired and Harbaugh hired Mike Macdonald from the Baltimore Ravens to serve as Michigan's new defensive coordinator.

On the podcast, Harbaugh confirmed one key difference in the new scheme: the Wolverines have moved numerous defensive ends to outside linebacker, where they now start plays standing up instead of in a three-point stance.

“You see it gelling, you see it coming together where players are doing some different roles based on the scheme, different positions, defensive ends are now stand-up outside linebackers,” Harbaugh said. “It fits them. I think they’re excited about it and learning those new positions.”

Those who switched positions include Taylor Upshaw, Mike Morris, David Ojabo, Gabe Newburg, Jaylen Harrell and Braiden McGregor — and all, according to Harbaugh, made “huge strides” in the spring.

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“You talk about the energy, you talk about the fun of those guys, all young players, all ascending players that are in a new role that all really had good springs,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh ALSO praised senior pass-rusher Aidan Hutchinson, who did not participate in scrimmages as he continues to recover from his season-ending injury this past fall, and also laid out a post-spring depth chart for the rest of the defense.

On the interior of the defensive line, Harbaugh said Donovan Jeter is the starting defensive tackle, while Mazi Smith is an “ascending” player.

“Mazi, Chris Hinton, Julius Welschof, Kris Jenkins, Jess Speight, Joey George had a heckuva good spring,” Harbaugh said. “That interior defensive line is really coming along. Mazi had a heckuva spring and so did Chris (Hinton) and then young players like Julius Welschof, Jenkins to go along with Donovan Jeter. I feel like we are getting stouter in the middle, as well.”

At linebacker, Harbaugh praised Josh Ross and Mike Barrett, who have the most starting experience in their position group. He also commented on the development of younger linebackers such as Nikhai Hill-Green, Kalel Mullings and Junior Colson, saying, “Some real good young linebackers came to the fore.”

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In the secondary, Gemon Green appears to have locked down a starting spot, while “D.J. Turner and Vince Gray (are) battling for that other corner spot.”

“D.J. really had a great spring, took that coaching from Mo Linguist and Mike Macdonald and he looks like he put himself in a position to be a real factor, battling for that starting job,” Harbaugh said.

Michigan defensive back Gemon Green celebrates a tackle against Penn State during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.
Michigan defensive back Gemon Green celebrates a tackle against Penn State during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

At safety, Dax Hill and Brad Hawkins appear to be the two starters.

“(They) had extremely good springs,” Harbaugh said, “and then young safeties, they really asserted themselves, RJ Moten and Jordan Morant and Caden Kolesar and Makari Paige are all ascending as well on that defensive side.”

Harbaugh was pleased that U-M was able to practice this spring after missing all of spring ball last offseason due to the coronavirus pandemic. And it seems the defense certainly benefitted.

“So, as I said, good players that are learning,” Harbaugh said. “There’s not a lot of talk, but it’s nobody’s business. That’s how they’re going about their business daily and weekly. Been pleased with the defensive side.”

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: Jim Harbaugh outlines Michigan football's defense progress this spring