ESPN previews Michigan football defense entering 2024

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While there may be a lot of unknowns about the 2024 Michigan Wolverines in football, given the new coaching staff and so much of the personnel departing for the NFL, one thing is for sure: the defense stands to be among the nation’s best.

All that despite the entire defensive coaching staff from a year ago turning over. It’s a whole new staff on that side of the ball, but thanks to the players coming back, there’s a lot of optimism in Ann Arbor.

You have a solid front, with all four of the projected starters having been on the field in that pivotal final play against Alabama in the Rose Bowl. The linebacking corps may be new starters, but with Ernie Hausmann and Jaishawn Barham leading the charge, there’s a lot to like. Then you have star cornerback Will Johnson in the defensive backfield.

Though the Rod Moore ACL injury certainly put a wrench into the plans, the defense is loaded. And ESPN seems to think so, too.

Resident advanced stats guru Bill Connelly wrote for ESPN about the 12 defenses that could change the college football landscape in 2024 (subscription required) and naturally Michigan was among the selected. Noting that while we see coaches leaving college for the NFL, the Wolverines went the other way (after, well, losing most of the staff to the NFL) by bringing in Wink Martindale — which should prove to be a major factor for this upcoming team.

Amid all the Sturm und Drang about stressed-out college coaches leaving for the pros — a phenomenon that isn’t even slightly new, even if being a major college coach in the particularly frontierlike current environment is quite exhausting — a very well-known NFL defensive coach moved to the collegiate ranks: Wink Martindale. The 60-year-old coordinator had spent the past two decades in the pros and fielded maybe the best defense in the NFL with John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens in 2019 and 2020. He struggled in two years of leading the New York Giants‘ defense, but, well, coaching for the Giants hasn’t been the best career move for many people of late.

Coaching Michigan’s defense, on the other hand, has been pretty great. In the nine-year Jim Harbaugh era, the Wolverines ranked seventh or better in defensive SP+ seven times, ranking first during last season’s national title run. The blitz-happy Martindale inherits a defense that is replacing nine of 18 players with 250-plus snaps, as Michigan is currently 101st in returning production on defense (and 132nd on offense). But he’ll have a pair of ferocious rush ends in Derrick Moore and Josaiah Stewart. Junior tackle Kenneth Grant might be the most active and agile 350-pounder in the sport and he pairs with Mason Graham, who might be the best player on the unit. And the combination of all-world corner Will Johnson and veteran safeties Makari Paige and Quinten Johnson should be able to prevent too many fires. Will Johnson might be the best returning cornerback in college football.

There’s more to read on ESPN, but it does look like an incredible unit on paper. Still, they play the games for a reason, but last year that favored the maize and blue more than any other team.

If the Michigan defense can surprise Texas in Week 2, anything can happen in the 2024 college football season.

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