Michigan Wolverines football linebacker Cam McGrone speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, in Ann Arbor.
Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
The comparison comes easy.
Linebacker Cam McGrone‘s speed is noticeable in the middle of Michigan football’s defense. So was the speed of his predecessor, former star Devin Bush Jr. — an All-American and first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in April who ran a 4.43 second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. In many ways, the two have similar styles of play.
But who’s faster?
The two never found out last season, the only one they spent together in Ann Arbor. And given Bush’s official, electronically-timed 40-yard dash this past winter, most would give him the edge.
Don’t count out McGrone, though.
“No, we never raced,” McGrone said Monday afternoon. “But I think I would give him a run for his money.”
From his first start against Florida in 2017, Bush stood out due to a combination of speed and playmaking ability. He had the range to cover sideline-to-sideline, and the instincts required of the middle linebacker position to make those plays.
McGrone has proved himself to be a similar player in seven starts this season. He has been perhaps the breakout player on the defense, and his level of play has changed how the unit operates. With McGrone in the middle, the Wolverines have a player who can wipe out mistakes — his own or others’. He can blitz and make plays in the backfield (he has seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and a team-best four hurries). He can play in coverage. He can defend the run. And he can do all of those things at a high speed.
“He’s going to make a lot of plays that other people won’t be able to make,” said linebacker Jordan Glasgow. “He’s going to be able to cover up some holes that are created by maybe people being out of position, and he’s just going to help us be a better defense overall.”
McGrone knows speed kills in today’s game, with modern offenses testing defenses horizontally and vertically. To counter, defenses don’t have as much use for the old, throwback thumpers of a previous age of football.
Instead, they want smaller, quicker linebackers who can cover more ground — linebackers like McGrone and Bush.
“Speed at the linebacker position is really coveted now,” McGrone said. “So if you’re able to have that, the sky’s the limit.”
Michigan has watched the future of its linebacking corps change drastically. The Wolverines entered the season with junior Josh Ross as the starter in the middle, a role he seemed equipped to handle after a solid season last year at weak-side linebacker.
But Ross got hurt against Wisconsin, McGrone took over, and he has seemingly earned the middle linebacker job permanently — while Michigan is planning to redshirt Ross and run things back next year, presumably placing him at weak-side linebacker alongside McGrone.
It’s a pretty different situation from the one a year ago, when McGrone was a former highly ranked recruit buried on the depth chart as a true freshman. His redshirt season, though, proved valuable.
“Some people might be able to come in freshman year and go crazy with it,” McGrone said. “But for some other people, it takes time. And I think I was one of those people that takes time. Now that I’ve been in there for a while, I feel comfortable.”
Of course, while McGrone immediately flashed his potential filling in for Ross against the Badgers, there was a natural learning curve. In the days after that game, he learned he would start the next game against Rutgers. That whole week, McGrone recounted, “was real crazy.”
“I was shaking every time I got on the practice field,” McGrone said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to play this week.’ “
Game experience against the Scarlet Knights helped ease any nerves.
“You can think you have instincts, but being out there in front of 100,000 people, you kinda freeze a little bit,” McGrone said. “It’s just getting that time out there on the field. Everything comes natural.”
Now, he ranks fifth on the team with 48 total tackles — although he might rank No. 1 in impressive plays. McGrone’s burst and closing ability have been present in every game he has started this season. It’s the latest step in his progression.
“Seeing him from a freshman, I thought he was very mature for where he stood when he came in,” Glasgow said. “I felt that physically and mentally, he was at a pretty high level already. And then he made big improvements from his freshman to redshirt freshman year. Obviously, you can see how good of a player he is now.
“I don’t think it was really any surprise to the people that have been practicing with him that know how good of a player he is. To go out and perform as a redshirt freshman, thrown in in the third or fourth game, then to start afterwards, he’s done a great job.”
McGrone has already improved by leaps and bounds this season. But he knows there’s room left to grow — especially considering the player he’s replacing.
“Great player like Devin, to be behind him and learn from him, watch him play every Saturday, it’s kinda contagious,” McGrone said. “You want to be as close to that as possible. Just watching him play and watching the things that he’s doing now, it’s definitely motivating.”
Michigan Wolverines football coach Jim Harbaugh speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, in Ann Arbor.
Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press