With NFL-hopeful players up front, at linebacker and in the secondary, the Michigan defense is experienced, talented and fast. Michigan has nine starters back on defense and eight of them were at least honorable mention All-Big Ten players. Defensive end Rashan Gary is projected to be one of the top picks in the 2019 NFL draft.
“Everybody’s talked a lot about these guys,” Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison, a former Notre Dame assistant, said Wednesday. “The great news is, Saturday we’ll find out. … Let’s see where they rank.”
Last year, the Wolverines ranked No. 1 against the pass and No. 3 overall on defense in the nation and they’re expected to be even better.
“They have gotten certainly a lot of the recognition in preseason and deservedly so,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said.
Wimbush struggled last November after a strong start, losing 41-8 to Miami and 38-20 to Stanford while he averaged 3.2 yards per carry and was 21 of 49 with three touchdowns and four interceptions. He was benched during the Citrus Bowl and replaced by Ian Book, who led a 15-point, fourth-quarter comeback to beat LSU to close out a 10-3 season.
Wimbush is at his best on the run. He had 804 yards rushing last season and 14 touchdowns, a single-season record by a Notre Dame quarterback.
“The man can scoot. He can fly,” Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich said. “It presents some challenges, but we like challenges. Challenges make football fun. We like hitting quarterbacks, too, so hopefully we get chances for that.”
Unlike last year, Wimbush won’t have running back Josh Adams as a threat in the backfield to keep defenses guessing. Adams ran for 3,201 yards and 20 scores over three years before going pro. Tony Jones Jr. may get the first shot to replace Adams and other candidates to get carries include Jafar Armstrong, Avery Davis and C’Bo Flemister.
If Wimbush has time to pass behind the Alex Bars-led line , he’ll likely be looking one of his 6-foot-4 receivers: Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin. Claypool had 29 receptions for 402 yards and two scores last season and Boykin caught 12 passes for 253 yards and two TDs.
Notre Dame left tackle Liam Eichenberg is expected to make his first start and how he fares against Gary could be key to Notre Dame’s success on offense.
“Liam’s a ferocious, physical player, but he’s going to be challenged over there,” Kelly said. “He’s playing against one of the best players in the country. So he’s got to know that there’s going to be some times that he’s going to struggle and that we have got his back. That our job to help him out at times and get a tight end over there, get a back over there.”
The 6 -5, 283-pound Gary was rated as the nation’s top high school player coming out of New Jersey and he started to live up to the hype last season. The junior seems to be as fast and strong as ever. Winovich, who plays on the opposite end of the line, chose to come back to college even though he could’ve gone pro with 14 career sacks.
Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson may be two of the fastest linebackers on any college football team. Cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long can play man-to-man coverage, allowing coordinator Don Brown to attack offenses with blitz packages. From front to back, the Wolverines have plenty of speed.
And Wimbush will be the focus.
“Everything goes through him,” Bush said. “If you stop him, you stop the whole offense.”