The Michigan Wolverines boast one of the best defenses in modern-day college football. They also have a decorated history of talented players who have stood out on the defensive side of the ball and remain some of the best Wolverines to ever play the game. This article is going to take a trip down memory lane and rank the top 10 Michigan defensive players in history.

As one of the most well-known teams in the college game, many of the names on here will come as no surprise, especially to Michigan Football fans. The list features players who have donned Super Bowl rings or been recognized as Heisman Trophy winners but also brings to light some of the more underrated stars who have contributed to Michigan’s impressive college football history.

Who are the Michigan starting defensive line in 2023 season?

Michigan boasts one of the top-ranked defense in 2023, a strong unit led by a robust defensive line. The heart of this Michigan defense roster features talents like Mason Graham and Kris Jenkins. Jenkins, who topped the team in tackles with 54 in 2022, has chosen to return for another year with the Wolverines, providing a significant boost to the Michigan defense ranking.

On the edge, Michigan will be starting Braiden McGregor and Jaylen Harrell. Harrell started in every game but one in 2022, getting 3.5 sacks throughout the year.

Michigan Defensive Back History

The Wolverines have produced a litany of talented defensive backs, but none are more celebrated than Charles Woodson, who won a wide range of awards during his college and pro career.

Aside from Woodson, The Wolverines have boasted several other highly celebrated defensive backs. These include cornerback Leon Hall and safety Tripp Welbourne, who were both recognized as consensus All-Americans.

In order to find the holder of the school’s all-time interception record, we have to go all the way back to the 1960s. Between 1967 and 1969, Tom Curtis recorded 25 interceptions, which still stands as a record now. The person to come closest to beating that record is, unsurprisingly, Charles Woodson with 18.

Famous Michigan Defensive Backs

When it comes to famous defensive backs from Michigan, it doesn’t get any more famous than Charles Woodson. Woodson is one of three Michigan players to win a Heisman Trophy, and he would go on to have an even more impressive professional career, winning Defensive Player of the Year twice and being selected for nine Pro Bowls. He also won a Super Bowl in 2011 with the Green Bay Packers.

Ranking the Top 10 Greatest Michigan Defensive Players of all time

  1. Brandon Graham (2006-2009)

Position: Defensive End
CFB Career stats:
29.5 sacks, 56 tackles for loss
2× First-team All-Big Ten (2008, 2009), 2009 First-team All-American, 2009 Big Ten Conference co-MVP, 2009 Second-team All-American

Detroit Native Brandon Graham stayed close to home for his University experience, where he would be an impact player for the Wolverines. His 29.5 sacks rank second in school history, with Graham also contributing 7 forced fumbles and 56 tackles for loss in an impressive college career. The defenses he played in were not very good, but that only emphasizes Graham’s excellence.

  1. Leon Hall (2003-2006)

Position: Cornerback
CFB Career stats:
12 interceptions, 43 passes defended
2006 Consensus All-American, First-team All-Big Ten (2006)

Leon Hall is the first of the Michigan DBs to appear on this list. After growing up in Oceanside, California, Hall made the trip to Michigan University and had an impressive college career, not missing a game during his time there between 2003 and 2006.

He was a stalwart of the defense and made sure to put himself into the team’s history books. Hall’s interceptions (12) are good enough to tie him for fourth in school history, and he sits at the top of the pass breakups leaderboard with 43.

  1. Jarrett Irons (1992-1996)

Position: Linebacker
CFB Career stats:
440 tackles
Consensus All-American (1996), 2× First-team All-Big Ten (1995, 1996),

Hailing from The Woodlands, Texas, Jarrett Irons sits proudly as Michigan’s second-highest tackler, recording 440 across his college career. Irons was a tackling machine, and the Michigan linebacker was a pivotal part of a defensive unit that helped the Wolverines win the Hall of Fame Bowl and the Holiday Bowl at either end of 1994.

He was also recognized as the team captain in 1995 and 1996, during which time he enjoyed his best years as an individual. He recorded 6 sacks and 20 tackles for loss, which contributed to him being selected as a First-team All-Big Ten player in both years, as well as a consensus All-American in 1996.

  1. Erick Anderson (1988-1991)

Position: Linebacker
CFB Career stats:
428 tackles
1991 Butkus Award, 1991 Consensus All-American, First-team All-Big Ten (1991)

Erick Anderson (born in Long Beach, California) was a nightmare for opposition offenses, recording incredible tackle totals throughout his whole career. To this day, he is still the only Michigan Wolverine to lead the team in tackles in four consecutive seasons.

Anderson did not start the first two games of Michigan’s 1988 season, in which the team lost to two highly-rated opponents. He was first introduced to the starting lineup in the third game of that season, after which the team went on to be undefeated for the remainder of the year.

Anderson helped the team to a Rose Bowl victory in his first season and led the team in tackles (77) despite being a freshman. His strong freshman year set the tone for a fantastic college career, during which the Wolverines were successful as Big Ten Conference champions or co-champions every season.

  1. Ron Simpkins (1976-1979)

Position: Linebacker
CFB Career stats: 516 tackles
Awards: 1979 consensus All-American, 2× First-team All-Big Ten (1978, 1979)

Local boy, Ron Simpkins, grew up in Detroit and remains one of the most famous former Michigan defensive players of all time. The star Michigan linebacker was a relentless tackler, finishing up his college career with 516, which is the current school record.

Simpkins led the team in tackles in his sophomore season, and his 144 was nearly double that of second place (76). This became a familiar trend for Simpkins, as he led the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons, helping them win three league titles and play in three Rose Bowls. In his final season, Simpkins was selected as the team’s Most Valuable Player, to wrap up a truly dominant college career.

  1. Lamar Woodley (2003-2006)

Position: Linebacker/Defensive End
CFB Career stats: 24 sacks, 12 forced fumbles
2006 Lombardi Award, 2006 Consensus All-American, First-team All-Big Ten (2006)

Lamar Woodley is another on this list who grew up in the state of Michigan, starting off his life in Saginaw. Woodley is one of the most well-known defensive stars to come from Michigan, enjoying Super Bowl success with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009. He was drafted by the Steelers in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft, standing out because of his physicality as a pass rusher.

During his time at Michigan, Woodley played at both linebacker and defensive end. In his final year, Woodley was named the captain of the defense and would go on to have his best year as a Wolverine. He would accumulate 12 sacks across his 2006 season, which was good enough for most in the Big Ten and got him selected as a first-team All-Big Ten player, as well as a consensus All-American.

He currently sits as number three on Michigan’s all-time tackles for loss leaderboard and is one of the best players to play on the Michigan defensive line.

  1. Tripp Welbourne (1987-1990)

Position: Safety
CFB Career stats:
238 tackles, 9 interceptions
2× Consensus All-American (1989, 1990), 2× First-team All-Big Ten (1989, 1990)

Known for his elite tackling abilities and ball-hawking skills, Tripp Welbourne was one of the best safeties to ever play for Michigan. Born in Reidsville, North Carolina, Welbourne’s career started as a wide receiver. After joining a crowded Wolverine receiver room, Welbourne swapped over to the defensive side of the ball and went on to be a centerpiece of the Michigan defense.

Welbourne took to his new role very well and started every game of the 1988 season, recording 72 tackles and 5 interceptions. This marked the beginning of a dominant period for Michigan, and they were the Champions or co-champions of the Big Ten Conference every year that Welbourne played as a starter.

Welbourne’s defensive coordinator stated that Welbourne “does more than any player we’ve ever had”. Welbourne is the only player on this list to be recognized as a consensus All-American two times.

  1. Mark Messner (1985-1988)

Position: Defensive Lineman
CFB Career stats:
36 sacks & 70 tackles for loss (both school records)
Consensus All-American (1988), 4× First-team All-Big Ten 1985-1988)

Mark Messner was a true force in the Wolverine defense, breaking numerous records and notching three Bowl victories as a Michigan defensive lineman. Messner grew up in Riverview (Michigan) before joining a dominant defensive unit, where he made an immediate impact in his first season as a starter in 1985.

At Michigan he notched impressive defensive stats. He had 11 sacks, 71 tackles and 14 tackles for loss, also going on to be recognized as the Defensive Player of the Game in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl. More success would follow throughout the rest of his Wolverine career, including a record-breaking 5 sack performance against Northwestern in 1987.

He finished his career as the record holder for most career sacks (36) and tackles for loss (70). These impressive numbers led to him being inducted into Michigan’s Athletic Hall of Honor in 2014. There is no doubt that Messner ranks amongst the best Michigan defensive players.

  1. Tom Harmon (1938-1940)

Position: Halfback/Defensive back
CFB Career stats: N/A - Stats from this time are not available
1940 Heisman Trophy, 2× Consensus All-American (1939, 1940)

Just like most star players from the early 1900s, Harmon was a regular contributor on both sides of the ball. On eight occasions, Harmon was involved in all 60 minutes of a game. The highlight of his career came in his final game when the team beat Ohio State 40-0. Harmon essentially won the game all on his own, scoring 3 rushing touchdowns and 2 passing touchdowns with the offense, and recording 3 interceptions as part of the defensive unit. It might seem a bit unfair to include someone who also had a role on offense, but as Michigan’s first-ever Heisman Trophy winner, he had to be included.

  1. Charles Woodson (1995-1997)

Position: Cornerback
CFB Career stats:
18 interceptions, 30 passes defended
1995 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, 1996 Defensive Player of the Year, 1997 Heisman Trophy, 2× Consensus All-American (1996, 1997)

Selecting the number one player on this list is straightforward. Born in Fremont, Ohio, Woodson is one of only three Heisman Trophy winners to come out of Michigan. He was an elite cornerback who also utilized his athletic abilities to return punts and even play the occasional snaps as a wide receiver.

His talent was evident right from the get-go. Woodson grabbed 5 interceptions in his first year, which contributed to him being identified as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 1995. The success continued in 1996 when Woodson logged a record-breaking 15 pass-breakups and became a First-Team All-American.

Woodson’s best season was his junior season. He was instrumental in the team’s successful 1997 campaign, where they won a share of the national championship. He contributed two red zone interceptions and a punt return touchdown in the final two games of the year, including the team's Rose Bowl victory against the Washington State Cougars.

Woodson will likely go down as the greatest Michigan defensive player of all time, also going on to be the best of any Michigan defensive backs in the NFL. As a pro, Woodson won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers and won the prestigious NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award twice. He was also picked for the Pro Bowl nine times, and selected as a First-team All-Pro four times.

Parameters of Rankings

Players have been ranked based on their individual accolades as well as how this contributed to the team’s overall success.


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