Mazi Smith’s stardom — much like himself — has been subtle the entire season. In fact, it’s been quiet throughout his entire football career.
That is, until Saturday.
Finally, the senior defensive tackle’s performance jumped off the screen. It was impossible to ignore the 337-pound athlete barreling at Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, the behemoth building a wall deterring the Buckeyes’ run game.
Against Ohio State, Smith was the star that the Wolverines’ defense needed. He constantly broke down the interior of the Buckeyes’ offensive line and was really one of the only pass-rushing presences.
On Monday, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh spoke at length about Smith, praising the star in the trenches:
“(Smith) played his best game that he’s ever played,” Harbaugh said Monday. “(He) had four tackles, gave the most pass rush in the game … can’t say enough about him.”
This isn’t anything new for Smith — he’s been the anchor of the Wolverines’ defense all season. But up until The Game, the recognition hasn’t mirrored his production. His position is inherently unglamorous; defensive tackles don’t rack up all that many sacks or highlight-reel plays. But he’s been a hero in his role.
Michigan had relied on Smith to be its run-stopper all season, its hulking presence in the middle of its interior defensive line. It’s a role he’s excelled in.
While Smith’s performance on Saturday wasn’t surprising given his entire season leading up to The Game, it’s a bit less believable if you look at where he was when he first got to Ann Arbor.
When Smith first came to Michigan, he could hardly run three plays in a row due to poor conditioning. But on Saturday in Columbus, he played over 60 snaps and was by many accounts, the Wolverines’ best defensive player.
He’s come a long, long way.
“I played 61 snaps … that was a career-high for my snap count,” Smith said. “I’m very proud of that, happy with that. …You just gotta be a soldier.”
Smith has had trouble staying on the field for much of his time at Michigan. So it’s not surprising that his breakout season coincided with his physical renaissance.
He’s moved beyond self-proclaimed unhealthy eating habits and asthma to get to where he is today. And those challenges have only contributed to his ascension.
“It kind of helped me develop a trait where I don’t quit because I’m used to things being hard,” Smith said. “When I get tired I don’t quit. Or when things get stressful or strenuous on the body, I don’t quit.
“I can always get back up and keep going because it’s a feeling that I’m familiar with.”
His past trials and tribulations propelled his growth. The younger version of Smith was still big, but he wasn’t as strong — he couldn’t impose his will on anyone like he can now. It was through a combination of eating better and living in the weight room that allowed him to make a bigger impact on the field.
“(Smith) completely changed his body in the … weight room to become the football freak — number one,” Harbaugh said.
Never was Smith’s growth more obvious than Saturday. It was almost as if his entire journey was leading up to that game in Columbus; an opportunity to finally show the world how dominant of a force he is.
Because for one game — The Game — Smith’s stardom was crystal clear.