Michigan Wolverines Football LB Nikhai Hill-Green Is Camp Surprise No. 1

Every fall, a few players emerge in camp that seemed to come from out of nowhere. Linebacker Nikhail Hill-Green is one of those this year for Jim Harbaugh’s seventh Michigan Wolverines football team, a second-year frosh who figures to start next to redshirt junior Josh Ross.

Many expected redshirt sophomore Michael Barrett to get the nod after he made the move from viper, but Hill-Green has moved past him on the depth chart … at least for now. Harbaugh called his freshman “everything you’re looking for in a linebacker” last week, and Hill-Green continues to up his game.

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“I’m just hoping to build on it, really,” he said. “Everyone feels good, the energy is high and I feel good personally. I feel like I’m playing better in space, knowing formations and knowing what plays I can get from formations. That’s really a thing I focused on in the offseason — just being more in my film study and asking questions in the meeting rooms, knowing about stuff pre-snap.

“I’ve really just put my all into this team, really into myself, and I’ve just bet on myself. I’ve put everything into my nutrition, my film study and being all into this team. That’s the biggest difference, and I take this so seriously because I just want success for my team.”

That’s his ultimate goal, and he knows good play from him and his fellow linebackers can help make it a reality. Ross has upped his game, as well, to the point that Hill-Green insists he hasn’t seen him make a mistake this fall, and the two figure to provide a very good combination at the MIKE (inside) and WILL (outside) positions.

Hill-Green is playing both and coming on strong at each. There’s more freedom in this year’s defense under new coordinator Mike Macdonald, he acknowledged whether it’s being the run-stopping MIKE or the pass-covering WILL.

“It allows you to play sideline to sideline and inside out, really,” he said, noting the defense has been good at holding down the number of big plays. “… I would just say less busts. If everyone just does their jobs, it should run smoothly, and it’s set up to create negative plays and chaos for offenses.”

Much of that comes from Macdonald’s work with the Baltimore Ravens, where he focused on the linebackers. New assistant George Helow has also been an asset, Hill-Green noted, dropping nuggets of information daily that have helped the group improve.

“He’s a great teacher of the game,” he said. “He gives me and the other linebackers nuggets every day we can use in football. He really knows his stuff, a great football mind.

“With [Macdonald], it’s just knowing football is bigger than your position, knowing what everyone is doing. That’s what coach Mac is really focused on. He wants us to be the quarterbacks of the defense.”

Both Hill-Green and his former high school teammate, running back Blake Corum, insisted there was a different vibe in the building than last year, and they can’t wait to get going. It starts at the top with Harbaugh and has permeated through the coaching staff to the players, Hill-Green said.

“This energy, it’s contagious,” he said. “The positivity, the enthusiasm, the optimism … it’s contagious in the building.

“You can feel something brewing. We’re just ready to take it out on someone else.”