Josh Uche lived in the backfield at Michigan. But one of his most notable plays came 50 yards downfield.
During a win over Penn State last October, the Wolverines’ star pass rusher showed blitz before the snap, dropped back into coverage, set off on a dead sprint toward his own goal line and broke up a deep ball intended for lightning-fast slot receiver K.J. Hamler.
“Look at No. 6!” Kirk Herbstreit exclaimed on ESPN’s game broadcast. “… How about Uche? He’s a blitzer, 250 pounds, and he’s 40 yards downfield!”
Pass breakups don’t feature prominently in Uche’s highlight reels — he recorded just three in his Michigan career — but the Hamler play illustrated the type of dynamic versatility he’ll bring to the New England Patriots, who traded up to select him with the 60th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
After leading the Wolverines in sacks as a seldom-used situational edge rusher in 2018 (seven, two more than starting defensive end — and new Patriots teammate — Chase Winovich), Uche played all over Don Brown’s multifaceted Michigan defense last season.
Brown deployed him on the edge …
… off the ball …
… walked up over the guard …
… in the slot …
… and even in the secondary on occasion:
“We had him in every package known to mankind,” Brown recently told the Boston Herald’s Andrew Callahan. “There’s a ton of learning with that package stuff. We demand a lot from our players, and I thought he handles it really well.”
Wherever he was slotted, Uche displayed an innate ability to get after the quarterback and cause chaos behind the line of scrimmage. He was Michigan’s leading sack artist again in 2019 (8 1/2), also leading the team in QB hits (eight) and ranking second among FBS edge rushers in both pressure rate (23.3 percent) and pass-rush win rate (28.2 percent), according to Pro Football Focus. His 11 1/2 tackles for loss ranked second among Wolverines defenders.
Uche, who earned the “Most Versatile” superlative in PFF’s 2020 draft guide, can generate pressure off the edge, with blitzes from the second level and on stunts. His best asset is his speed — clearly evident on this chase-down sack he had against Penn State — but he showcased impressive power at times, as well, despite being on the smaller side for an edge defender (6-foot-1, 245 pounds) and pumping out a modest 18 bench press reps at the NFL Scouting Combine.
In one game against Maryland, Uche drove a helpless right tackle directly into his quarterback for a sack. Against Illinois — a game in which he racked up three sacks and five tackles for loss — he used his long (33 5/8-inch) arms to put a right guard on skates. In the Outback Bowl against Alabama, he bowled over a guard on one play and later knocked tackle Jedrick Wills on his backside, though Wills was able to quickly recover.
Wills, who wound up being drafted 10th overall by the Cleveland Browns, called Uche the toughest pass rusher he faced last season.
Uche capped his final collegiate season by dominating at the 2020 Senior Bowl. Playing exclusively as an edge rusher, the 21-year-old registered pressures on five of his 11 pass-rushing snaps before a hamstring injury ended his day (and ultimately prevented him from working out at the combine).
With versatile linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins both leaving the Patriots in free agency, Uche should see immediate playing time as a rookie, perhaps in a sub rusher role similar to the one Winovich played last season. He does enter the NFL with some question marks, however.
For one, Uche was on the field for just 52.8 percent of Michigan’s defensive snaps last season, and that was by far the highest mark of his college career. He’ll need to prove he can hold up as a full-time, three-down linebacker in the NFL, especially against the run.
Uche’s production also dipped when he faced top-tier competition. Michigan played six games against ranked teams in 2019, and Uche was held without a sack or tackle for loss in five of them, including late-season losses to Ohio State and Alabama. He had an especially tough time against Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, who’s now in charge of protecting Tom Brady after going 14th overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Wirfs pancaked Uche three times in their October matchup, and Uche’s lone QB hit came against the Hawkeyes’ other tackle.
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