FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith sat side-by-side at the podium Tuesday morning, fielding questions about the Michigan football team’s pending College Football Playoff clash with Georgia.
The scene served as a blatant reminder of just how far the Wolverines’ defense has come.
Michigan wouldn’t be prepping for a New Year’s Eve battle at the Orange Bowl without the unit’s considerable strides. The Wolverines boast the second-best scoring defense in the nation, allowing just 16.1 points per game. Last season, in contrast, they ranked 93rd, surrendering 34.5 points a contest.
Smith and Hinton, the duo of junior defensive tackles, are pivotal to that effort.
“Going into this season, we all knew that if we wanted to win games, we had to play well and we had to make sure that we stepped up for everybody that needed us to,” Smith said on Dec. 21. “It’s something that you’ve been longing for, something that you’ve been wanting to do your whole life, but it’s also something that you expect yourself to do when the time comes.”
Both Smith and Hinton had to bide their time as underclassmen, waiting for expectations to become reality.
Hinton, a highly-touted five-star recruit, opted for the Wolverines over the likes of Alabama and Georgia, his home-state school. Though he appeared in 18 total games as a freshman and sophomore, he made minimal contributions with just 23 total tackles.
Smith, originally a four-star recruit, chose Michigan over Ohio State and Penn State. He grew connected to then-defensive line coach Greg Mattison, who served as Smith’s initial recruiter.
Yet as soon as Smith, an early enrollee, set foot on campus, Mattison departed for a co-defensive coordinator position with the Buckeyes.
“There was a transitional stage there where Mazi was kinda lost,” Tony Kimbrough, Smith’s high school coach at East Kentwood, said. “To his credit, he could’ve jumped in the portal and ran away from the challenge. But he didn’t. He stayed there and just said, ‘Hey, I need to put the work in.’ And he did it.”
Staying on that course wasn’t always easy. Smith lived in the weight room — Kimbrough describes him as “one of the hardest working men” he’s ever known — but work off the field failed to paraly into on-field performance. He appeared in seven games across two seasons, notching a meager three tackles.
“He had some frustration there,” Kimbrough recalled. “You go from being an All-American superstar in high school to not playing, so there were some moments there when he was frustrated.”
This season figured to be a crucible. And, fortunately for Smith and Hinton, it coincided with a fresh start.
In January, Michigan hired Mike Macdonald as its new defensive coordinator, pulling the 34-year-old from his position as the Baltimore Ravens’ linebackers coach. At once, the crux of the Wolverines’ defense changed.
Don Brown, Macdonald’s predecessor, emphasized speed along the defensive line. That meant maintaining slimmer frames and adhering to strict diets.
Upon arrival in Ann Arbor, Macdonald implemented a more traditional 3-4 system. The defensive tackles re-gained weight to plug gaps and win in the trenches, all the while retaining their athleticism.
“I just think using his personnel to the best of our ability, he’s got packages for everybody,” Smith said of Macdonald’s best attributes. “He’s trying to get the most out of us, and we want to do it.”
Added Hinton: “I think he does a great job of putting people in great positions to make plays.”
Gaping holes that materialized along the line in recent years have since been vanquished. Last season, the Wolverines allowed the opposition to rush for 178.9 yards per game, the 79th highest figure in the nation. This year, that mark has plummeted to 121.1 rushing yards per game, ranked 21st in the country.
Michigan’s defensive line is earmarked by senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and redshirt sophomore edge rusher David Ojabo, two likely first-round picks. And yet, on a unit boasting starpower, Hinton and Smith have developed into formidable players in their own right.
“A lot of people don’t understand that unless you truly know football,” Kimbrough said. “Their job is just as important. Those guys in the interior allow them to be freed up on the outside. The ability to maintain gaps, taking two-blockers and still maintaining the line of scrimmage — that frees up those other guys to do their thing.”