Grades Are In: Michigan Defense Leads The Way, But Offense Is Impressing Too

Michigan's 7-1 mark after the bye is a direct result of success largely across the board through eight games.

Every week during the season, I have watched the film (most of the time twice), and ranked each position group on a 1-5 scale (5 being the best). After eight weeks, here are the best units on the team.

Special Teams - 4.5

Michigan ranks 47th nationally in specials teams efficiency according to ESPN.com, which seems unexpectedly low and is largely due to a placekicker in redshirt sophomore Quinn Nordin that has become unreliable in recent weeks, missing 3 of his last 6 attempts, and a lone poor kickoff return against (98-yard TD vs. Maryland)

But junior Will Hart is the best punter in the Big Ten, averaging 49.5 yards per punt with 16 of 50 yards or more (he likely won't challenge the single-season record of 24 but is booting it 50+ yards on 57.1 percent of his 28 kicks compared to 30.0 percent for Zoltan Mesko in his record-setting season of 2008).

Both U-M returnmen rank among the top 35 nationally and the Wolverines have been solid on coverage outside the Terrapins' score. Honestly, it comes down to this: Michigan has won the special teams battle every single week, and when is the last time we could say that?

Defensive Line - 4.4

Michigan ranks 15th nationally with 24 sacks and 24th with 61.0 tackles for loss, with defensive linemen contributing 16 of the QB takedowns and 37.5 of the TFL. Even without injured starter Rashan Gary, who has missed the last three games with an AC joint injury, the Maize and Blue have been able to put pressure on opposing signal-callers and stymie running games. The latter is a team effort, but the front four has played a critical role in opponents averaging just 97.1 yards rushing per game and 2.9 yards per carry.

Fifth-year senior end Chase Winovich has, arguably, been the best player on the team all season (junior LB Devin Bush would have the other argument) while the interior of the line - seniors Bryan Mone and Lawrence Marshall and juniors Carlo Kemp and Michael Dwumfour - have improved significantly since Week 1.

Since Gary went down against Northwestern, junior Joshua Uche and sophomore Kwity Paye have combined for three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss, showcasing the depth of talent the Wolverines enjoy up front.

Quarterback - 4.3

Junior Shea Patterson ranks second in the Big Ten and 13th nationally in ESPN.com's QBR, while in traditional pass efficiency he rates 21st with a 155.47 rating. His 8.3 yards per attempt also drops him in at No. 25 in college football. Patterson doesn't put up big numbers, with just 190.4 yards passing per game and 12 touchdowns in eight games this season, but he's completing 67.2 percent of his attempts and has just three interceptions - only one in his last 130 tosses.

Patterson has been the big-play-at-the-right-moment QB Michigan has needed, whether it's key first-down scrambles against Northwestern (three), a long run to jumpstart the offense against Wisconsin (81-yarder), or a home-run throw against Michigan State to break a 7-7 stalemate (79-yarder to DPJ).

Redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey has been superb in reserve - he has thrown for two TDs and run for one - as he has demonstrated an ability to run the offense, giving extreme confidence to a fan base that if something disastrous occurred, McCaffrey could do the job.

Linebackers - 4.1

Devin Bush, Devin Bush, Devin Bush. Actually, the really promising aspect of linebacker play has been junior Devin Gil and sophomore Josh Ross, who have split the weakside reps (Ross also gets some run at MIKE). Following the lead of Bush, both are fast sideline-to-sideline players that show strength and fight at the point of contact.

Bush has played like an All-American all season long, with a stat line - 49 tackles, 7.0 for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 pass breakups - that should be good enough to earn him the conference's top LB award.

Junior Khaleke Hudson had a rough start to the season, suspended for the first half of the Nebraska and Northwestern games due to targeting calls the week prior, but over the last three games, he has played like the Viper we expected to see coming into the year (albeit without the eye-popping statistics of 2017).

Running Backs - 4.1

There was a lot of head-scratching when Karan Higdon announced he had mulled over leaving for the NFL. But then we saw the Amazon Prime series chronicling his life as a father and understood.

Higdon returned for his senior year and outside of Patterson's transfer, was the most important offseason "addition" of 2018 as it turns out. He has cemented himself as one of the best running backs in the country - his 118.7 yards per game ranking 8th nationally and is second in the Big Ten. He's had 100 yards or more in six straight games, the longest stretch by a U-M running back since Mike Hart had eight in a row in 2007, and sets the tone for a rushing attack that gets stronger as the game unfolds, finishing off Northwestern, Wisconsin and MSU.

Higdon is not alone in his success at the position, though, as Michigan has received an unexpected contribution from junior Tru Wilson, filling in for an injured Chris Evans, while sophomore fullback Ben Mason shares the team lead in rushing TDs with six, and has been unstoppable in short-yardage situations.

Offensive Line - 4.0

Raise your hand if after Week 1 you said that Michigan was doomed up front? My hand is raised. In fact, I tweeted out that U-M's only chance at salvaging the season was replacing its two starting tackles immediately. Jim Harbaugh stayed the course and has been rewarded as fifth-year senior right tackle Juwan Bushell-Beatty has been one of the team's best linemen and redshirt junior left tackle Jon Runyan has been solid.

The interior has been the catalyst of success for a running game that ranks 33rd nationally with 212.8 yards per game and is 31st with 5.1 yards per carry. The unit has also only allowed just 13 sacks this year (38th nationally) after ranking 114th a year ago in giving up 2.8 QB takedowns per game (this year it's 1.6).

Defensive Backs - 3.9

A couple of really poor performances at Notre Dame and at Northwestern bring this grade down from what it probably should be. But then, those games did happen, and they weren't pretty for the secondary, which lost key jump balls against the Irish and were slanted to death by the Wildcats.

The good is the last two weeks, in which Badger QB Alex Hornibrook and Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke completed 12 of 45 combined pass attempts for 166 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions (a 56.10 efficiency rating) as U-M neutralized those two signal-callers in big wins.

Overall, Michigan leads the country in pass eff. defense (90.88), is No. 1 in pass defense (122.9 yards per game) and is No. 2 in yards per attempt (4.8).

Wide Receivers - 3.8

It's surprising to find them this low, and I don't have a great explanation other than that's what the eight-game average says. A bit of this mark is reflective in how little the unit has been used - Michigan doesn't have a receiver that ranks in the top 100 nationally in receptions or receiving yards though Peoples-Jones is 32nd with six receiving TDs.

Some of the fault lies in play-calling and play-design - a lot of long-developing routes built off play-action - but a largely young receiving corps with 4 of 5 regulars in its second year or less still struggles at times with separation from defensive backs. That said, this is a group that seems to be getting better every week and has shown its ability to make a difference, like Peoples-Jones' 79-yard score against MSU and sophomore Nico Collins' four receptions of 30 yards or more.

Tight Ends - 3.5

One week redshirt junior Zach Gentry looks dominant. The next? He disappears -- following a career-best 7-catch, 112-yard effort vs. Maryland he has just three total catches in the past two games, for 26 yards. Gentry has moved the chains on 16 of his 23 receptions this year, and has demonstrated an ability to be a positive force when U-M gets him the ball.

Junior Sean McKeon has been up and down as both a pass catcher and a tight end. If he can find consistency in his game the final four contests, the Wolverines will greatly benefit because he's someone the coaches put on the field a lot.

Junior Nick Eubanks has four receptions (among five) of 20 yards or more and is a good receiver, but his average blocking keeps him from playing more.

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