The national narrative when it comes to Michigan football in 2022 is that last year was great, but it was basically a once-in-a-lifetime scenario – now Ohio State will return to glory and the Wolverines will return to the typical disappointment.
Not so fast, says Jim Harbaugh.
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Fall camp is underway in Ann Arbor, and Corn and Blue have completed four practices so far. Harbaugh agrees that yes, the defense has lost a lot of players to the NFL, but from what he’s seen, it could be a better unit, despite those losses.
“When you lose players like Ojabo, Aidan Hutchinson, Dax Hill, Josh Ross, that’s going to be the first question: how are you going to replace those guys?” Harbaugh told Jon Jansen on the “In the Trenches” podcast. “I think his potential, and I think you kind of see him developing before your own eyes, I think our defense could be better. A defense without a star. I was part of a lot of them that were the big defenses. It creates more competition within the position, the guys are hungrier. Upshaw, Julius Welschof, Mike Morris, Jaylen Harrell, Braiden McGregor, I mean, right there. We’re talking about the EDGE guys, it’s a whole bunch.
“And then the young guys too – TJ Guy, Kechaun Bennett, Derrick Moore, Micah Pollard – like the things I see from him. I think the position is going to be good. I know I judge with our own team – we go two minutes, enter the competition period. The EDGE rush felt the same as this time last year. They are difficult to block. We will continue, but there are very good signs there.
But Harbaugh went beyond just saying the defense could be better this year.
Discussing Mazi Smith and the inside defensive line, he explained not only why he felt the inside line was better, but why he thought the pressure on the edge could – despite the staff not being as exemplary than last year – could match or surpass last year’s group.
“Really high. Again, you are judging against your defense against our offense. And really, the offensive line is the same as last year, and they’ve improved,” Harbaugh said. “I see the EDGE pressure is almost as good, or as good as last year, but a lot of improvement inside. Lots of improvement with Mazi Smith, Kris Jenkins continued to be very, very, very strong, quick and fast and he’s improved a ton. That inner group is reinforced by George Rooks – I feel like he’s really moving forward. Dominick Giudice comes in, Rayshaun Benny comes in. Then there’s Ike and the two freshmen – Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant – are better. We also seem better inside the defensive line.
When those in Columbus explain why they think the Buckeyes have an opportunity to return, they cite last year’s lack of experience compared to this year. But Michigan is in the same boat, dismissing almost the entire offense, in particular.
Yes, the personnel losses on defense have been significant, but we pointed out on the Locked On Wolverines podcast that every presumed starter, barring rookie Will Johnson if he wins the cornerback job, has extensive playing experience. , otherwise a starting experience. Harbaugh also notes that this team has 19 total fifth- and sixth-year players and 24 fourth-year players. Regardless of playing time, it’s a lot of experience overall.
Harbaugh feels like this gives Michigan an edge because, as he always says, football players get better at football by playing football.
“I think so, yeah. The guys that are – they know the program, they’ve excelled,” Harbaugh said. “There’s something they really love about it, and they can deliver those messages, things they taught young players. Even the sophomore class. There are exactly 36 players in the sophomore class, and the freshman class is exactly 36. So from freshmen to sophomores , we had nobody left. It’s a different group. Every class right now is strong and going about its business, minding its own business and – in my eyes, thriving in the program.
Of course, Michigan having what appears to be a non-conference schedule while hosting all but two toughest conference opponents at home also adds to the possible advantages. Once the Ohio State game rolls around, they’ll be an experienced team, beyond what they already are. We’ll just have to see if it matters at the end of November.
One other thing to note, though, regarding last year’s defense: The 2021 squad ranked No. 20 overall in total defense. For as much praise as it has garnered, this is actually the second-lowest result in Jim Harbaugh’s seven years with the program, with the 2015-18 defenses all finishing in the top five, while the 2019 defense was No. 11 overall. 2020 was an outlier while 2021 was more of a return to normal – but still not on a global level like its predecessors.