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Led by Ross and McGrone, UM linebackers have high hopes: 'We can be the best'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan linebackers Josh Ross and Cam McGrone have set the bar high with a bit of bravado weeks before the start of the season.

Ross is itching to play having missed most of last season with a high ankle sprain and McGrone wants to show that what he did last season after gaining more playing time because of Ross’ absence wasn’t a fluke. Michigan's season opens Oct. 24 at Minnesota.

Josh Ross will help lead Michigan's linebacking corps this season.

“My expectation is we’re gonna be the best linebacker group in the country,” Ross told reporters recently. “And (McGrone) feels the same way. The talent he has, the talent I have, us together, we can be the best. We’re ready to go do it.”

McGrone, in a separate interview with reporters, backed up Ross.

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“I feel like we have the best combination of speed and physicality,” said McGrone, who was honorable mention All-Big Ten last season. “The linebacking group is so smart. Even the young guys, they’re catching on really fast, little mental errors throughout all practices. I think the combination of all those things, that’s what’s making us the best in the country.”

Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown was told Wednesday about those comments from his linebackers and he didn’t temper their enthusiasm. Brian Jean-Mary is in his first season coaching linebackers at Michigan and has been shaping the group with Brown.

“They’re confident guys that know their stuff,” Brown said during a Zoom video conference. “That’s the biggest piece. You can be a great athlete, but if you don’t know your stuff and how you fit in and all the defenses in terms of your run-fits and pass-fits and exactly what they’re doing on each position and exactly what they’re doing based on formations, these two guys are bright, articulate, know the game of football, know our system. I think what’s coming out is they’re very confident about what they do on the field. Confidence breeds success.”

With Khaleke Hudson now in the NFL, Brown has to find a new starter at viper, a hybrid linebacker in his defense. As padded practices open, that will be an ongoing competition between Michael Barrett and Anthony Solomon.

“We feel good about both of those guys’ ability, their ability to run, cover, straight-line blitz,” Brown said, also adding freshman William Mohan in the mix.

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An intriguing name in the linebacker room is Ben VanSumeren, who was a fullback last season. Brown spoke readily and highly of the 6-foot-2, 253-pounder.

“One of the biggest surprises for us in camp has been Ben VanSumeren,” Brown said. “He’s 250-plus pounds, he runs 4.6 and he doesn’t just do that on the clock. Some guys run fast on the clock and that’s great, but you don’t really care in a football game what a guy’s clock time is unless it translates to the field. And he will run and hit you, that we already know. We don’t have to put shoulder pads on, we don’t have to hit anybody in terms of tackling. He runs and hits all over the field. We’re happy with his progress.”

Linebacker Cameron McGrone (44) recorded 66 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, last season.

Brown said VanSumeren will have an impact and they’re working to find him a role. He also said David Ojabo has shown improvement.

“He’s a very solid blitzer, he’s also a smart guy,” Brown said. “He’s been learning after a period of time at running back, so he’s had to put the time in the playbook. The other thing I probably like the most about this guy, if I correct him on something, it’s like the world came to an end. You may say, ‘Well, that’s not a good thing.’ He cares so deeply about being right. I think those guys end up being successful because it’s so important to them. Now you’ve got to teach them to just wipe that stuff off and move on to the next play, which he is doing. I just like coaching this guy. I know I’m getting a great effort every day. He’s exceeded expectations of myself and (Jean-Mary), as well.”

But this position group will be all about McGrone and Ross.

“(McGrone) picked up where he left off,” Brown said. “We’re very happy with his play, his performance. He’s really learned the defense. He really knows what we’re doing and knows what everybody else is doing as well. Josh Ross is the unquestionable leader and playing at a very, very high level.”

Brown said there are several young players like Adam Shibley, Nikhai Hill-Green and Kalel Mullings adding depth.

“We feel like we’re going to be in good shape there,” Brown said. “Pretty excited about that group.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis