SportsMonday Column: Winovich not a captain, but still the voice of the defense
Before the season began, the week of the Notre Dame game, Chase Winovich was dealt some unexpected bad news.
After a season in which he led the Michigan football team in sacks, tackles for loss and fumble recoveries, Winovich was one of the unquestioned leaders on the Wolverines’ defense which finished third nationally in total defense.
He saw himself as a leader too.
So, when Michigan announced its captains, voted on by the players, and Winovich wasn’t one of them, he was understandably disappointed.
“That one stung a little bit,” Winovich said that week, on Aug. 28, before giving some context. “But at the end of the day, when you think about it, I came back to win a national championship. I didn’t come back to win a popularity contest, so, you know, it’s on the board. That’s all I’m gonna say. My role as a leader is still the same. I woke up that day, was not the captain. I woke up the next day, was not the captain. End of the day, it’s out of my hands. So I’m moving on.”
He said that last part while mimicking wiping his hands clean. Perhaps he was telling the truth. His play has only gotten better from last year’s coming-out party — captaincy or not.
Winovich is tied for the most tackles for loss in the nation through five games this season. He once again leads the Wolverines in sacks, and he is second on the team in tackles, behind linebacker Devin Bush.
He is the workhorse of Michigan’s defense, and that was never more obvious than in the Wolverines’ win over Northwestern on Saturday.
Winovich led Michigan with nine tackles, eight of which were solo and three of which were for losses.
He practically lived in the Wildcats’ backfield all game long, breaking through their line so often you couldn’t help but notice his dominance.
“The ends, I think Chase had one of his better ballgames,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh after the game. “Just the way he was flying around and hustling all night. I mean, play after play after play after play.”
Winovich’s production obviously helped the Wolverines in their emotional, comeback win. And after every game like that, there are questions asked and stories told about sideline or locker room interactions that fired up a team or an individual player.
On Saturday night, Winovich was the subject of a few stories.
“Chase is a character, and he’s a tremendous leader on this team,” said junior quarterback Shea Patterson. “All he’s gotta do is look at you, and you know what he’s saying. He sparked a fire in me in the locker room and on the field in the third quarter. That helped me out a lot.”
“I told a lot of the guys when we were down, I looked each person in the eye, because I didn’t want the message to be dispelled,” Winovich said. “I said, ‘This is the part where we double down on all the hard work we’ve done. All the preparation that we’ve gone through. And they can’t take this from us.’ Even when we were losing I said that. It was our game. It was nothing they could do. But I’m just so fired up about that game, and it feels great.”
Another story that popped up was from practice last week.
On Thursday, Winovich spoke to the defense in an effort to inspire them for a game that may have looked like a cakewalk.
“I said, you know, ‘It’s in a sense their season, and it’s our season.’ ” Winovich said. “You know, we lose this game, who knows how that affects our chances at the playoffs and a Big Ten Championship. And for them, this would have been the greatest night of their lives. And obviously we spoiled that.”
It might seem odd to hear these stories of Winovich’s leadership from Winovich himself. For many people, that would make the stories less believable.
But Winovich isn’t a bullshitter. He’ll call an opponent’s offense predictable after a game if he feels that’s the case. He’ll tell you candidly that he was hurt when he wasn’t named captain.
There was one more bit of truth from Aug. 28.
After a question about his offseason and the progress he had made, Winovich started by mentioning the tools he’s added and credited strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert. Then he finished with a prediction.
“It’s gonna be fun,” Winovich said. “That’s all I’m gonna say about this season. Yeah, it’s gonna be fun.”
In hindsight, that almost looks like foreshadowing. Winovich had fun on Saturday. His team did too.
“It was electric,” Winovich said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a Michigan locker room that was that — like, the juice was flowing through everyone from the coaches to the managers to the equipment staff. It was going through everyone.”
Part of that can be credited to Winovich, who has stayed true to his word that his role has not changed. He has dominated on the field and done his best to inspire his teammates.
Winovich didn’t win the popularity contest at the beginning of the year. But he’s moved on from that. The reason Winovich came back — his national championship goals — are still in play. And Winovich is leading the push.
Persak can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @MikeDPersak or on Venmo @Mike-Persak.