Gary sharpening leadership skills in junior season

Monday, September 24, 2018 - 6:56pm

Junior defensive end Rashan Gary had two tackles for loss against Nebraska.

Junior defensive end Rashan Gary had two tackles for loss against Nebraska. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

Rashan Gary could have argued with his coaches on Saturday when they opted to hold him out for the second half of the No. 14 Michigan football team’s blowout win against Nebraska.

Part of the reason for Gary’s rest could have been a possible shoulder injury he suffered in the first half. The trainers were around him for a while, and it looked like they were tending to Gary’s shoulder, but Gary smiled and shrugged it off as a problem with his pads at Monday’s media availability. It wasn’t the most convincing deflection, but he showed no sign of an ailment Monday, so there’s no reason to doubt that he could have played if needed.

Still, with the score already out of hand, Gary had to fight his competitive nature that was telling him to argue his way back into the game, and take an uncharacteristic backseat to let younger players get some action.

“You know, it’s the bigger picture,” Gary said. “Me sitting back, and, you know, me not taking those reps, I was actually happy, because I got a chance, you know, to help (freshman defensive end Aidan Hutchinson) with what he’s seeing in the game, helping (sophomore defensive end Kwity Paye) see what he’s seeing in the game. You know, just hyping them up. Getting hype with them. Letting them know, like, ‘While you’re on the field, this is yours. And anything you want you can go get.’ And it was fun.

“Yeah, of course, as a competitor, I want to be on the field every play, every snap. But, it’s the bigger picture.”

He is an unquestioned leader on a defense with a ton of experience. From the preseason until now, stories have been told about Gary taking Hutchinson under his wing — Gary admitted he tells Hutchinson he is better than Gary was as a freshman.

That’s saying a lot, because Gary was the consensus No. 1 recruit in his class, and the MVP of the 2016 Under Armour All-America Bowl. He’s developed into a dominant player on the defensive line, and Saturday was his best game of the season so far — he had a season-high two tackles for loss, including a sack in a little less than one half of play.

“His preparation during the week, his intensity during practice, everything,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, “sets a great example for the rest of the players on the team. If you want to be, ‘I want to play like Rashan Gary. How do I go about that?’ Study Rashan. See how he approaches his workouts, his practice, you know, meetings, and you’re gonna see it at the highest level.

“It’s a great position to be in as a coach to say, ‘Okay, look at your best player. Look how he prepares.’ ”

Some of that work ethic and leadership ability has surely come from observations Gary has made of the players before him. He played alongside Maurice Hurst for the past two seasons, and was in Hutchinson’s position when Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley were the starting defensive ends.

Hurst, Charlton and Wormley are all in the NFL now.

But junior cornerback Lavert Hill came in with Gary and knew him from the start. He says Gary’s leadership qualities have progressed, sure, but were even present back in his freshman season.

“He always had it, like, as soon as he came in,” said junior cornerback Lavert Hill. “So him just getting older and getting more mature, I can see it, like, just progress over time.”

Whether Gary’s example has elevated the play of his teammates is something that can probably never be confirmed. Michigan’s defense is very good and extremely deep — it held Nebraska to 132 yards all game, and many reserves got solid playing time.

What is a sure thing is that Gary’s presence on the field obviously helps the Wolverines — after all, he’s a future early-round draft pick.

And if Gary’s words on Hutchinson replacing him for Saturday’s second half are to be believed, Gary is content to see his teammates make plays while he’s out.

“That’s my brother, I want to see him shine,” Gary said. “If I shine, we all shine, and vice versa.”