Applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks without blitzing has been a struggle for the Michigan football program since 2009, but there are four defensive ends with the ability to fix the Wolverines' issues up front this season.
Redshirt freshman Chris Wormley, junior Frank Clark, speedy sophomore Mario Ojemudia and physically gifted early enrollee Taco Charlton will all be vying to become Michigan's top pass-rusher in 2013.
If any of them are able to have a breakout year, it will bolster the Wolverines defense, which ranked No. 78 in the nation in sacks per game (1.69) last season.
There are no early favorites to achieve such a feat, though. It is hard to bet against Clark finally becoming a dominant force on the edge for Michigan. Clark began to show flashes of greatness toward the end of 2012.
The Cleveland, Ohio product's massive hit on Braxton Miller and outstanding performance against the Ohio State Buckeyes is not something the maize and blue faithful should forget about. Clark notched two tackles for loss, one sack and recovered a fumble in the 26-21 loss.
Putting on an extra 15 pounds over the offseason has undoubtedly been helping Clark compete in spring ball. Playing at 277 pounds now gives Clark a lethal combination of speed and strength to beat opposing tackles.
Beating out Ojemudia for the starting spot at rush end will not be a cakewalk for Clark, though. The former 4-star prospect added 13 pounds to his frame between the end of last season and this spring.
Ojemudia's forced fumble in the Outback Bowl loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks was a positive sign for his development. The weight gain only adds to the momentum Ojemudia entered the offseason with.
Charlton will also be competing at rush end with Clark and Ojemudia. The 6'6", 265-pounder has packed on 16 pounds in less than three months at Michigan, which means he could be playing between 275-280 by the time Aug. 31 rolls around.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has been impressed with everything he has seen from Charlton, thus far (per Chris Balas of TheWolverine.com):
"Taco Charlton is a young man who should be at his prom. Sometimes I look at him and say, 'you're too big to play," Mattison said. "The good thing for Taco is he gets two veterans who kind of know how to play it and gets to see what's right or wrong so he can learn a little quicker."
With plenty of weight now on his long frame, Charlton has the potential to become a Will Gholston-esque defensive end. Technique is the only thing Charlton needs to perfect throughout the spring.
Wormley may have an advantage over the other three competitors, however. The battle for the starting spot at strong-side defensive end will not be nearly as difficult to emerge from compared to the weak side.
Only unproven returner Keith Heitzman along with redshirt freshmen Tom Strobel and Matt Godin are jostling for position with Wormely. None of the three have made significant contributions during their time in Ann Arbor.
Meanwhile, Wormley was a candidate to see the field as a true freshman before tearing his ACL last August. Wormley is not as quick as rush ends, but his arsenal of moves is much more developed than theirs.
As far as who will be the team's top pass-rusher this season, Clark seems to be the safest bet. Clark's physical advancements, new-found maturity and experience make him the standout in the group.
Ojemudia, Charlton and Wormley will all make significant strides forward in their own games and get on the field numerous times this season. The three will be hard-pressed to have a better year than Clark, though.
Note: All player ratings are courtesy of ESPN.
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