Heading into the 2022 season Michigan football was going through some changes on the defensive side of the ball. There were lots of questions, and experts everywhere assumed the defense would take a step back. They were wrong.
First year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald had returned to Baltimore, replaced by Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Jesse Minter. Both had ties to the Ravens and the defensive scheme now implemented at Michigan, Minter said this would be year 2 of the defense despite the change at the top.
Leaders and talented defenders like Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, Daxton Hill, and Josh Ross were now in the NFL. A new coordinator, replacing all of those players, the Michigan defense was going to face adversity.
The defensive group arguably with the biggest challenge at the start of the season was the linebackers. Ross was the MIKE linebacker and quarterback of the defense. While Junior Colson had had an excellent freshman season, he was going to be asked to take on a lot more moving to the middle. The expected starter at WILL linebacker, Nikhai Hill-Green, had a hamstring injury that would linger into the season, in fact it would eventually cost him his entire season. The guy everyone was sleeping on was Michael Barrett.
Barrett faced adversity of his own in 2021, his Viper position was no longer part of the defense, and he was dealing with lingering injuries of his own. Barrett spent most of his time with special teams, a group he had thrived with since arriving in Ann Arbor, and limited snaps at linebacker as he essentially learned a new position. With Hill-Green injured, Barrett took over as the starting WILL. Instead of transferring when Don Brown was let go in ’21, Barrett stayed and worked his way back up, once again earning a leading role with the Wolverines to start the 2022 season.
Behind Colson and Barrett, the depth was limited. Kalel Mullings had been spending offseason camps playing linebacker and running back. Hill-Green’s injury forced him back to linebacker, but he was clearly not as comfortable had he spent the entire offseason working with the defense. Freshman Jimmy Rolder was a talented future star but would need time to make an impact.
There were bumps and challenges especially in the first half of the season. But by the back half, Colson and Barrett were consistent factors for the defense. Playmakers, like Barrett’s two interception performance against Rutgers. The duo led the team in tackling, combining for 173, they also contributed 5.5 sacks as well.
In a recent media appearance Barrett explained how Strength Coach Ben Herbert helped prepare them for a season like that.
“You never know what adversity you are going to face,” Barrett said. “You are defined by how you react to it.”
Barrett’s perseverance, success, and now return to Ann Arbor are what the culture at Michigan is about. Everything we talk about with the resurgence under Harbaugh since 2021, embodied by Barrett. Now, the linebacker group that was a question mark in the 2022 offseason is an unquestioned strength in 2023.
Colson and Barrett return, while Hill-Green is healthy and ready to bounce back. Jimmy Rolder contributed as a freshman is ready for a bigger role. There are names to watch like Micah Pollard, and group of very talented freshman. Michigan also added one of the best players in the transfer portal with Ernest Hausmann. Depth has gone from a concern to an asset, and now we are wondering how Michigan will possibly play all of the talented players it has.
Still, change is coming to the group. Coach George Helow and Michigan mutually agreed to part ways this offseason, but a familiar face has returned in Chris Partrdige. No player at Michigan may be more familiar with Partridge than Barrett.
“I was excited, he recruited me here,” said Barrett. As far as what Partridge brings, it’s similar to many of the hires Harbaugh has made the last two seasons, new ideas and energy.
“Different outlook, just enthusiasm. He has a way of getting everyone fired up, getting them ready to go.”
So while the linebackers are now deeper and more talented after a season Barrett called a “growth year” for the group, will there be heated competetion? Was anyone bothered by the addition of player with starting experience like Hausmann?
The simple answer is no. Barrett welcomes anything that makes his group and the team better. He knows that starts with how they treat each other in their room.
“We’re always teaching other, coaching each other up, we are never looking at it like he’s going to take my spot. It’s always love, support, we’re always there for each other.”
The linebackers at Michigan faced adversity last season, and undoubtedly will face some in some form this year, but they are stronger than before. The younger players will continue to grow, and a player like Colson or Hausmann may have an all-timer kind of season. A name we aren’t discussing much may breakout. There is so much we don’t know. One thing we do know, this group will be led on and off the field by Michael Barrett. As good as they could be this year, they are better because he is back in Ann Arbor.
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