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Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said the group of incoming freshmen defensive players the team signed during the early signing period is athletic and big.

The Wolverines received 22 letters of intent last week, with more than half playing on defense. They signed four defensive linemen, including Port Huron Northern's Braiden McGregor, the No. 2-ranked player in the state, and four four-star defensive backs.

Brown, appearing on the "Inside Michigan Football" radio show Monday night, was asked what stands out about the signing class from a defensive standpoint.

“Very athletic,” Brown said. “This is the most athletic group we’ve signed on defense and the biggest. We’re really excited about it. Braiden McGregor was the first guy in the door on Wednesday in terms of getting his letter of intent in. He’s a Michigan guy, he’s a big guy, we’re expecting big things from him. Aaron Lewis, Kris Jenkins for sure.

“And then we were fortunate enough to pick up Jaylen Harrell who’s a guy in the mold of a Josh Uche type who can really rush the passer. He played middle linebacker but also has tremendous size — he’s 6-5, 240 pounds. So again, athletically we really feel like we’ve signed four guys that can flat-out play up front for sure.”

Michigan has been preparing to face Alabama in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. Here are other highlights from the interview with Brown:

On the defense this season: “We got off to an interesting start to say the least. Didn’t think we came flying out of the gates by any means. Had some new faces to blend with some old faces. Had to solidify positions, especially up on the front. Really took us a few weeks to hit our stride a little bit, but really felt the guys after the Wisconsin game, their effort level, their energy but, most importantly, their focus on the mental piece of the game intensified and really gave us a chance to play the kind of football that we’re accustomed to around here. We won eight games where we were averaging 11.25 points against and thought we really hit our stride coming out of that Wisconsin game. Sometimes a negative can turn into a positive, and that was certainly the case. Not happy with the way the season ended, of course, but obviously got a great opponent in the Citrus Bowl with Alabama so obviously a chance to go out in the right way.”

On the emergence of linebacker Cam McGrone: “The thing with Cam, athletically, I would have to say he’d be in the top 10 percent in the country at linebacker. This guy has tremendous ability. He’s a very smart guy. Really, as a young player, the thing that requires the most time on task is the use of your hands at the collegiate level, which ties right into the next level. That was his biggest jump. He’s a tremendous athlete, he’s a very smart guy, really started to use his hands well. Sometimes guys that are very fast don’t play fast on the field. He was able to translate and play fast almost immediately and it certainly showed even in the Wisconsin game, as well.”

On the challenges for cornerback Ambry Thomas, who was hospitalized before the season with colitis: “First off, he’s a tremendous person. Great leader. An attention-to-detail guy. It was really concerning the month of July because he was more in the hospital than he was out but managed to miss maybe four or five practices at the beginning of the camp and then got in there and was never out of the lineup ever again the entire year. When you’re battling a physical ailment that he had to battle, you’re not sure what you’re going to get out of the player. It was probably for me the No. 1 success story that I can point to in terms of individuals on our defense.”

More: Defusing Alabama's 'explosive' receivers poses tough mission for Michigan

On Alabama’s high-potent offense with top receivers: “These guys are very talented. They’ve got two really good receivers for sure and the two tackles are equally as talented. From a talent standpoint, it’s all over the field. Obviously, they’re going to present some challenges for us.”

On the Alabama offensive line: “We’re pretty talented up front as well. Aidan Hutchinson really had a tremendous year really all the way through. He and (ends) Kwity Paye and Mike Danna will divide both tackles’ (Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills) attention. We feel like we match up there really well. The one thing when you think about us, we can’t be stagnant. We can’t stand still in front of them. We’ve got to move and grove and do the things that have gotten us to be (seventh) in the country in defense (292.8 yards).”

►On Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (who replaced injured Tua Tagovailoa): “Doesn’t run very much, but neither did Tua. He’s a very capable pocket thrower, has a great understanding of their offense and is a very solid competitor. I haven’t seen much different. You look at the Auburn game, and it’s a 48-45 shootout, and he was going step-for-step with Auburn, as well. He’s a good quarterback, he’s very capable, he can make all the throws, so he certainly is going to present us some challenges.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis

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