Defensive line depth anchoring top-ranked defense

Wednesday, November 7, 2018 - 10:11pm

Defensive line coach Greg Mattison has spent the past 47 years coaching.

Defensive line coach Greg Mattison has spent the past 47 years coaching. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

In Michigan’s defensive line meeting room, there are boards. One lists Wolverines who made the All-Big Ten team on the defensive line two years ago. Another lists last year’s honorees.

“And then there’s another board,” defensive line coach Greg Mattison said Wednesday, “that has skeletons of people saying ‘Who’s going to be in this group?’ ”

The message certainly speaks to the inevitability of such top-level talent arising. Last year, Maurice Hurst, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich made the cut. Two years ago, it was Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow.

“We talk about, at Michigan, if you’re going to play on defensive line at Michigan, you better play it up to here,” Mattison said. “Now, all of a sudden this group is doing that.” 

With 47 years of coaching experience under his belt, Mattison can say that with sincerity and credibility. It conveys the sheer volume of top-tier talent Michigan’s defenses have consistently produced. More broadly, it’s a telling sign of the depth the Wolverines’ front regularly rolls out.

This year, that depth is anchoring the top-ranked defense in the nation, from the top down. Seven defensive linemen have registered at least half a sack. Eight have double-digit tackles on the season.

When star junior defensive end Rashan Gary hurt his shoulder last month, sophomore Kwity Paye and junior Josh Uche were called upon to fill in. In the first game without Gary, they notched two sacks apiece. Wednesday, Mattison lauded Paye for his aptitude at multiple spots along the line.

“(He’s) very versatile,” Mattison said. “He’s an anchor. He played anchor behind Rashan. He also will be the first guy to backup (fifth-year senior) Chase Winovich in some of the packages that coach (Don) Brown puts together. He’s a guy that can do a lot of different things because he’s intelligent and really fast.”

Uche, for his part, currently leads the team with seven sacks in just 63 pass-rush snaps, per a Michigan spokesperson, good for an 11 percent sack rate. If that was an official NCAA statistic, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the country would top him in the category. Uche’s development has added yet another layer to the defense, and allowed the junior to blossom into a bona fide pass-rushing star in his specialized role.

“He’s a pass-rush technician,” said Uche’s roommate, junior VIPER Khaleke Hudson. “I knew that before. I just see all the work he’s been putting in. I’m not surprised at all. … He’s unblockable. To me, unblockable. I don’t think anybody can block him. That’s just what feel. It’s what I know.”

Gary’s return has allowed Mattison to experiment with different combinations. He sees the excess of riches as an opportunity to rotate advantageously. In the third down passing packages, Paye frequently lines up with Winovich, Uche and sophomore Michael Dwumfour to maximize speed. Gary, now back to full health, will start getting those snaps, too.

Michigan currently sits seventh in the nation in third down defense, allowing conversions on just 27.7 percent of third downs. Last week, Penn State converted just 2-of-11 such attempts. The game before, Michigan State failed to convert any of its 12 attempts. That Wolverines’ defensive line has certainly earned a bulk of the credit.

“If you know it’s a passing situation, you’re better with speed. We happen to have guys that are faster than others,” Mattison said. “The other thing that that does, we have a lot of talent. It keeps guys involved in the game.”

The interior of the defensive line has weathered injuries to sophomore Aubrey Solomon and junior Michael Duwmfour, with fifth-year senior Lawrence Marshall and junior Carlo Kemp filling in seamlessly.

“We have a starting first unit and a rotating first unit and a rotating second unit. All of them are starters. Lawrence Marshall, if you asked me, he’s a starter. The guy who happens to be playing very, very strong for us in there is Carlo Kemp,” Mattison said. “Anyone who goes in that game should be, in your mind, a starter.”

That begs the interminable question that lines the board in the defensive line room. “Who’s going to be next?”

Winovich — who was a tight end just a few years ago — seems destined for All-Big Ten honors this year. Perhaps Uche, too, at this rate.

But the evergreen answer? Always someone.