INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — It may be hyperbole at this juncture, but Jim Harbaugh tends to share precisely what he’s thinking. And, at Big Ten media days earlier in the week, he followed up on his thoughts during spring ball when he shared that the 2022 iteration of Michigan football might be ‘scary good.’
While most in the media look back on the Wolverine defense in 2021, saying there’s no way that the maize and blue can replicate the success without Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo now gone, Harbaugh looks at it a little differently. He envisions a scenario where a defense without established star players coalesces — because he’s seen it before.
He notes that while big things were expected of Hutchinson last year, Ojabo wasn’t exactly on anyone’s radar heading into 2021. It’s just a matter of new stars being born, much like Ojabo was midway through last year.
“It was a great defense last year. And we talked about some of the stars like Aidan Hutchinson and Dax Hill and, and David Ojabo — Oh-job-oh — you know, like, last — I remember coming here last year, there was no talk of David Ojabo, and then by the end of the year, it’s Oh-job-oh. So, there’s some real stars there,” Harbaugh said. “And people are asking, how are you going to replace those stars? I have been a part of many a team where the no-star defense was the better defense. And because there’s more competition within the position groups, there’s more guys hungry, like David Ojabo was a year ago — hunger for that, to be great. And that’s why I feel as I watch it, I just — I have a sneaky suspicion that it could even be better on defense.”
The defensive side of the ball is retooling as a whole, not only missing the two aforementioned players, but safeties Dax Hill and Brad Hawkins, defensive tackle Christopher Hinton, linebacker Josh Ross, cornerback Vincent Gray, and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. However, new DC Jesse Minter comes from the same mold as Macdonald, having spent several years with the Baltimore Ravens before coordinating Vanderbilt’s defense last year. And there are several nonstarters from last year — linebacker Junior Colson, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, safety Rod Moore, and defensive end Mike Morris — that are all expected to be key figures in their own right.
One of the benefits for this team is that there are holdovers from last year who got to witness the mentality and work ethic that Hutchinson and Ojabo provided.
Defensive tackle Mazi Smith is expected to be one of the lone ‘names’ on this year’s defense, and given that he got to see his fellow defensive linemen in action, he feels that it’s provided he and his teammates something of an understanding of how to operate if they want to follow suit.
“It’s a certain way that people carry themselves on the field and off the field before having a year like that,” Smith said. “It’s a certain mentality that they bring. You listen to the words they speak, you listen to the things that they speak into existence — it’s a big deal. And they just really show you the way. Aidan took care of his business, no matter what was always holding him, he was always locked in. Ojabo didn’t want to let anybody beat him ever — in practice, no matter who they was. And that’s how it has to be if you want to be a good player.”
One of the big things we’ve heard this summer is that this team refuses to be complacent, despite surprising the college football world in 2021. That’s easier said than done, but if you listen to Smith, he says all of the right things in that regard.
“You got to do it all over again, don’t get full of yourself,” Smith said. “A lot of people get full on themselves, whether it’s as an individual, or as a team, it never (works out for them).”
Michigan will start with fall camp commencing on August 3, while the season opener takes place a month after that, as Colorado State comes to The Big House on Sept. 3.