ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- For many months, there has been hand-wringing and consternation about the state of Michigan's offensive line. But what about the other side of the trenches?
The Wolverines' defensive line has produced at a mediocre rate, at best, since Brady Hoke's first season in 2011. That's a fact that has to eat at both Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who are both former defensive line coaches.
But unlike the offensive line, which exited spring with question marks remaining, there is hope that Michigan can turn this position into a strength again.
"I've been here for four years and I've seen three different defensive fronts come through here," senior defensive end Frank Clark said. "And I think it’s the best one we’ve had."
The group blends a mixture of veterans and youth, with many of the young players getting valuable exposure last season. Some of them were hyped recruits who display obvious size and athleticism, such as sophomores Taco Charlton (6-foot-6, 275 pounds), Chris Wormley (6-4, 292) and Willie Henry (6-2, 297). New position coach Mark Smith, who mentored the linebackers the previous three years, was understandably excited for a chance to mold those guys.
"I didn't inherit a bunch of plow horses, now," he said. "I inherited a bunch of thoroughbreds. We look good coming off the bus. We've just got to get the mental aspects of it and our philosophy and the mindset we want up front."
Clark epitomizes the D-line crew in many ways. Long heralded as a star in the making, he started to deliver on some of that promise last season with 43 tackles and 4.5 sacks. After briefly considering a jump to the NFL, he returned to campus determined to do even more in his last go-round.
"I’m the vet," he said. "I’m the big dog now."
Another senior, Brennen Beyer, will man the other defensive end spot. Beyer has moved around a lot in his career and sometimes is taken for granted. But Smith said Beyer is one of the best players and leaders on the defense.
Then there's Charlton, who has enough potential to make Michigan fans salivate. Given the nickname Taco from his grandmother when he was born prematurely and weighed less than three pounds, he's more like a fully loaded burrito now. Even playing last season as a true freshman, Charlton said he never felt overmatched physically.
"It wasn't really hard because of my body," he said. "But now I feel like a mature guy, and everything is coming more easily. I know what it takes to play, so I can really relax now and just play without much thinking."
"Taco has immeasurable potential," Smith said. "That kid can be as good as he wants."
How good the Wolverines' line will be this fall likely hinges on the inside spots, where the team replaces starters Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington. Henry and Wormley played a lot there in 2013 and should improve after getting a season under their belts.
"Chris Wormley is one of those guys who, when he walks in a room, you go, 'Ooh, that's what it's supposed to look like,'" Smith said. "He's come a long way, but in a lot of ways, he's still figuring out what it takes to be an every-down player here."
Redshirt freshman Maurice Hurst Jr. made a strong impression this spring at tackle, while sophomores Matthew Godin and Ryan Glasgow and early enrollee freshman Bryan Mone also saw a lot of reps. Ondre Pipkins will eventually be back from a knee injury. The coaching staff believes it has now developed depth that will allow it to comfortably rotate several bodies this fall.
The players just have to prove themselves on the field and show they can apply pressure on the quarterback without help, something that has been problematic the past couple of seasons.
"We have a multitude of pass rushers, and we've got physical guys in the middle," Clark said. "If four can rush the passer and let everybody else drop into coverage and do their jobs, that’s when you have a great defense."
Michigan hasn't reached that level in a while. The potential of the defensive line at least offers some hope of returning there.