At this time last year, Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison had to deal with injuries on a line that had a lot of talent but questionable depth.
With Bryan Mone out all of last season with a broken leg and Ryan Glasgow sidelined mid-season with a torn pectoral muscle, Mattison had to scramble to find capable bodies to fill run gaps. Those problems became paramount last November, when running backs like Indiana’s Jordan Howard and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott — both of whom are now starting in the NFL — ran roughshod over the Wolverines.
A year later, though, Mattison’s biggest worry was whether his beloved Chicago Cubs would win Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday night.
“I don’t want to jinx them,” Mattison said. “I just know last night, in the seventh inning, my wife tried to talk to me and I wouldn’t speak to her. ‘Let me concentrate on this.’ ”
Stress levels have been through the roof for Cubs fans the past few weeks, but Mattison now has plenty of time to join them — his work life couldn’t be going much better.
In recent terms, Michigan’s defensive line is as healthy as it has ever been this late in the season. Other than Mone, who is still practicing but has battled through nagging injuries all year, the Wolverines’ four-man line has a completely healthy two-deep rotation.
Those eight players make up what might be the best defensive line in the country, accounting for 33 tackles for loss (for perspective, that’s as many as Iowa’s entire defense). More strikingly, there often appears to be no noticeable dropoff from the starters to the backups. Redshirt sophomore Chase Winovich leads the defensive line in tackles, and redshirt junior Maurice Hurst leads it in tackles for loss, despite both playing mostly second-team snaps.
Given the injury struggles Michigan has faced both last year and in years past, Mattison is very pleased not to have to worry about his position group’s health again.
“It’s as well as can be expected,” he said. “These kids are very, very physical football players, and they’ve gone against some big offensive linemen, some physical offensive linemen. Having the ability to rotate them has allowed for them not to have 60 or 70 reps. Getting off on third down has allowed us not to have to play 10, 12 extra reps.”
The line has been so effective that none of the players had to overexert themselves through the first seven games of the season. Playing Michigan State last Saturday was one of the first times they were tested, as Spartan running back LJ Scott did some damage with 139 yards and a touchdown.
By the end of the game, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh saw a few cracks in his defense’s armor.
“I do feel we have some things that we can address and coach and be better at,” he said. “I thought we got a little tired up front. … Throughout the team, it was good for our defense to be tested.”
According to Mattison, the defensive linemen didn’t need to be told that. They felt like stopping the running game was their responsibility, and they recognized that they were missing tackles and playing too high up front.
As it works to correct those mistakes, the defensive line is showing that its late-season freshness is more than just a physical advantage.
“Mentally and physically,” Mattison said. “They (all) come to meetings every day ready to go. They all practice with the kind of intensity that we want, the alertness we want. It’s a special group. … They love playing together, they have respect for each other. They know the bar’s very high for them.
“Some people, when people gain a few yards every once in a while, they’d say, ‘Ah, no big deal.’ This group takes it to heart, and that’s what I think separates them.”