Carlo Kemp joined the Michigan football team as an early enrollee in January 2016. Though he was just 18 years old and playing defensive end, new defensive coordinator Don Brown decided to try him out at linebacker instead.
The idea didn’t exactly pan out.
As the rising sophomore explained after spring practice Tuesday, his first week as a Wolverine was ‘pretty rough.’
“I would have traded him away for two used footballs,” Kemp recalled Brown saying about him a year later.
Added Kemp: “I probably would have done the same.”
Coming out of high school as the No. 42 defensive end in the nation according to the ESPN300 rankings, it was expected that he would be called upon to play his natural position.
Without proper training at linebacker, Kemp simply couldn’t keep up.
“I was kind of thrown into the fire,” Kemp said. “I didn’t really know anything that Brown was saying: ‘Follow the pulling guard, watch the tackle, stare into the backfield.’ … I’m used to looking at the tackle and, when he moves, I go.”
He came to Michigan at 260 pounds — the weight of a forceful run stopper on the line — and had to drop to 250 in order to play the more agile linebacker role. He did it in a week.
The weight loss didn’t fix his core issues, though. With his first few days as a Wolverine not going according to plan, doubt began to creep into his mind.
“To say (it) didn’t would be a lie,” Kemp said. “There’s moments where you just keep messing up in practice and you just don’t feel like you can get it.
“But you’ve got to silence your own voice and just keep coming out to practice every day and get a little bit better at something. You’ve got to pick one thing every day, and that’s how I got through it.”
With his struggles in the first year of spring practices, Kemp didn’t last long as a linebacker. Seeing his apparent flaws, Brown switched him back to defensive end before last season even began.
While he saw action in just two games his freshman year, Kemp has rediscovered his comfort zone at the anchor position on the defensive line. And in his second year, he has shown just how valuable that is.
Enjoying what Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison described as a ‘very, very good spring,’ Kemp has shown signs of steady growth. From his comfort level to his understanding of Brown’s defense, Kemp has impressed the Wolverines so much that Brown joked he didn’t even recognize the old Kemp.
Expecting to back up Rashan Gary this season, Kemp has used his fellow rising sophomore as a model to improve his level of play.
“He goes in there and sets the tempo,” Kemp said. “For me backing him up, I want to be as close as I can that there’s no drop-off. Rashan — we already know what he can do. And when I come in, I try to mimic his game a lot so that when he’s in and I’m in, it almost looks the exact same.”
The pair will be relied upon to help Michigan replace its starting defensive line from last season — fifth-year seniors Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow and Matthew Godin and senior Taco Charlton. Gary, part of the backup rotation for that quartet, will be expected to jump into their vacated spots, along with fifth-year senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, rising senior defensive end Chase Winovich and rising senior defensive tackle Bryan Mone.
Behind those four regular contributors, much is yet to be determined for the Wolverines. Kemp has a strong opportunity to emerge as a key part of that second rotation this season.
“I think that’s the feeling, especially across the board, at a lot of defensive positions, as well as offense,” Kemp said. “A lot of guys graduated and you can see it now, they’re all in the (NFL) Draft getting ready to start playing on Sundays. This year, spring ball has been a good competition of, ‘Who are we going to see on Saturdays?”
Back in his original position, Kemp is now poised to play an important role this season. He always had the potential, but now he has a shot to bring it to fruition in the right position.
“If I was able to get a scholarship here, there’s something that at one point (former defensive coordinator) Mattison saw that gave me the scholarship,” Kemp said. “It’s just, ‘Make it come true now.’ ’’