It was a gamble, and Mike Danna knew it.
All things considered, Danna had it good. In three seasons at Central Michigan, he tallied 27.5 tackles for loss and 15 sacks. Nearly half of each came in his junior season in 2018, a year which ballooned his national profile.
Pro Football Focus graded him as the nation’s 22nd-best player in its preseason top 50 rankings — noting his 24.3 percent success rate on pass rushes in 2018 as the second-highest in the country.
All of this is to say Mike Danna did not need the Michigan brand to get noticed. He could have stayed at Central Michigan and flourished in a senior season. He could have entered the NFL Draft, and he considered that possibility. Picking up your life and dropping elsewhere is not easy for anyone at any time.
But when Michigan came calling, he knew in his heart what he wanted.
“Michigan’s always been a dream of mine,” Danna said Tuesday evening. “It was always a dream of mine. My whole childhood, me and my father always watched Michigan games. Getting that offer was kind of just like — as soon as I got that offer, I was like ‘I’m coming to Michigan.’ ”
That decision was made easier by his familiarity with the program. Danna, a native of Warren, grew up knowing several of Michigan’s current and former players, including senior cornerback Lavert Hill, junior wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones and redshirt junior running back Tru Wilson. Though Sherrone Moore never coached him directly, the two share ties from their overlapping time at Central Michigan.
Still, this was far from a slam-dunk.
“I knew it was for sure a gamble,” he said. “I know the work that I put in. I know that you get what you put in, so if you put in a lot of work, something good is going to come out of it. There’s always good things that happen to good people. I put in a lot of work throughout the summer. I knew what I was getting myself into, and I gambled on myself because I knew at the end of the day, like, I can do it.”
Danna’s career path has followed a familiar narrative. He was a three-star recruit, the 46th-ranked player in the state, according to 247Sports composite ranking. The big schools, namely Michigan and Michigan State, didn’t come calling initially. He went to play for the Chippewas and steadily developed into an elite pass rusher.
Thus far, the transition to Michigan has been relatively seamless. He knew he was entering a defensive line room perennially stocked with talent, but the coaching staff instantly heaped praise.
“We knew Mike was good, but he’s doing better than advertised so far,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh last month on his Attack Each Day podcast. “His work ethic has been outstanding, and he’s on a mission to make both himself and Michigan great.”
He’s done nothing yet to deter the notion that he can. Though sophomore Aidan Hutchinson and junior Kwity Paye technically started at defensive end last Saturday against Middle Tennessee State, Danna featured heavily in the rotation. He notched a couple pressures and showed glimpses of his athletic ability, particularly in the increasingly-prevalent NASCAR pass rush looks that feature four defensive ends.
He’s no longer the man atop the depth chart, nor opposing teams’ scouting reports. He’s going to have opportunities, and he knows he’ll have to take full advantage of them. There’s an inherent discomfort with a new, more challenging environment. From big fish in a small pond to minnow in a great lake.
But it’s all worth it when he sees his parents in the Big House stands on Saturdays, when he gets to touch the banner, live out his childhood memories and realize, finally, his dream is now a reality.
“Every day I live with the mindset that, ‘You play for the University of Michigan, this is your dream.’ But at the same time, I don’t take no days off,” Danna said. “I look myself in the mirror and tell myself, ‘If you’re going to be this big guy on the field, you’ve got to live up to it.”