ESPN: Defense should continue to be a strength for Michigan, Michigan State football

The Detroit News
Khaleke Hudson (7) returns to lead a Michigan defense that ranked No. 2 overall last season.

Michigan and Michigan State each boasted a top-10 defense last season. ESPN doesn't see that really changing any time soon.

The Wolverines are No. 6, and the Spartans No. 11 in ESPN's "future defensive power rankings," posted Wednesday. Those power rankings are an attempted three-year projection, considering "current players, incoming recruits and potential NFL departures for non-seniors."

Both in-state rivals are coming off stout efforts in 2018, with Michigan ranked No. 2 in total defense (275.2 yards per game) and pass defense (147.8 yards).

That unit lost plenty of talent to the NFL, including first-round picks Devin Bush (linebacker, No. 10 overall, to the Pittsburgh Steelers), and Rashan Gary (defensive end, No. 12, to the Green Bay Packers), as well as third-round selections in defensive end Chase Winovich (New England Patriots) and cornerback David Long (Los Angeles Rams).

It's likely one reason why the Wolverines slipped one spot from their 2018 future defense ranking, but they're capable of restocking the cupboard, writes Adam Rittenberg.

" ... It's unlikely the unit struggles much, given the talent base and coordinator Don Brown's track record," Rittenberg writes. "Michigan will need to build around veterans such as Khaleke Hudson, Josh Metellus and Josh Ross in 2019, especially because the line will have such a dramatically different look, as junior Kwity Paye and others step into much bigger roles.

"The key here will be fast-tracking young, talented players — safety Daxton Hill, cornerback Vincent Gray, linebacker Cameron McGrone, linemen Donovan Jeter and Mazi Smith, and others. Hill, Smith, tackle Chris Hintonand others were part of a strong haul in the 2019 recruiting class. Michigan also received a commitment from defensive end Braiden McGregor, ESPN's No. 26 overall player in the 2020 class and the top-ranked in-state prospect.

"While Michigan's overall recruiting has fallen off since 2017, the defense excels in key metrics (No. 3 nationally in expected points added since 2017) and should keep producing."

More: 10 bold predictions for Michigan football in 2019

Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie considered leaving after last season for the NFL.

Michigan State, meanwhile, returns plenty from last season's unit that led the nation in run defense (77.9 yards), was No. 8 in scoring (17.2 points) and No. 10 overall (303.2 yards). 

That includes defensive end Kenny Willekes, defensive tackle Raequan Williams, linebacker Joe Bachie and cornerback Josiah Scott.

Willekes had 8.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss en route to Big Ten defensive lineman of the year honors as a junior, announcing in January he'd return for his senior season. Williams and Bachie also considered the NFL before choosing to return.

The Spartans jumped four spots from their 2018 future defensive ranking from ESPN.

More: 10 bold predictions for Michigan State football in 2019

"The unit projects well in 2019 with eight returning starters, including non-seniors such as cornerback Josiah Scott and lineman Jacub Panasiuk," Rittenberg writes. "MSU's front four should be formidable ... . Linebacker also looks strong in the short term with (Bachie) and Tyriq Thompson back for their final seasons. Cornerback Justin Layne is a big loss, but Scott is an awards candidate and senior safety David Dowell also comes back.

"MSU loses a lot after 2019, so continued development from underclassmen including safety Xavier Henderson, linebacker Brandon Bouyer-Randle and nose tackle Naquan Jones will be important. MSU signed four-star cornerback Julian Barnett in the 2019 class."

Alabama's defense topped ESPN's rankings.