Two years ago, Greg Mattison noticed that Rashan Gary and Chris Wormley — then a freshman and senior defensive end, respectively — had a habit of whispering to each other during position-group meetings. Naturally, the defensive line coach thought it was dissent at first.
But Mattison soon realized the value of these side conversations.
Even the top recruits struggle during their first summer camp of college football. Gary — the class of 2016’s top-ranked player — was no exception. So rather than save questions for later, Gary would simply turn to Wormley, who would put concepts into “a language he could understand,” according to Mattison. Now this summer, Mattison sees Gary returning the favor to freshman defensive end Aiden Hutchinson.
“Things are heading in the right direction when you have that on your team,” Mattison said.
It’s not rocket science, but it’s the pattern that Mattison sees as the key to the long-term success of his group. After all, the defensive line has been an area of rare consistency for Michigan during Jim Harbaugh’s tenure.
It was one of the nation’s best groups last year despite losing Wormley, Taco Charlton and Ryan Glasgow to the NFL. This year, despite the loss of defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, projects similarly. And oddly enough, so could 2019 thanks to a familiar strategy.
Mattison said his players will self-rotate on the line this season, with each playing a few snaps before subbing themselves out.
“When you have that, then when you’re out on that field, there is no time to take a play off,” Mattison said. “There is no time to not go 100 percent. If you’re going to be out there playing and your buddy wants to be playing and earned the right to play, don’t you dare go out and not play hard. That’s what had two years ago, and we’re working toward that.”
That rotation allowed players like Gary and Chase Winovich to gain experience early in their careers, setting them up for strong 2017 campaigns. A “seven or eight” man cycle will give Hutchinson and sophomores Kwitty Paye, Aubrey Solomon and Carlo Kemp similar opportunities.
Kemp, however, adds an additional element of depth.
After starting his career at defensive end, Kemp gained enough weight this offseason that he asked the coaching staff to move to tackle, where he’s been practicing this summer. But in a pinch, Mattison said Kemp will still be able to move back outside, too.
“He’s one of the strongest players on the team,” Mattison said. “He gives you a really unique player in that he’s very intelligent. He understands football. He wanted to move inside because there’s less running … now you have a guy who can fit inside, but if anything happened he could play outside.”
Mattison said Solomon, along with junior Michael Dwumfour and fifth-year senior Bryan Mone will rotate with Kemp in the interior. But the star power of Michigan’s defensive line, of course, comes from its starting ends, Gary and fifth-year senior Chase Winovich.
After flirting with the NFL this spring, Winovich decided to stay at Michigan for his final year of eligibility. Despite being “stung” when he wasn’t named captain, Winovich already feels like he’s making the most of it.
“This is the best camp I’ve ever had, hands down,” Winovich said. “In terms of remaining focused every day, getting better, best camp I’ve ever had. Staying healthy. I felt like I made a lot of strides this camp, this past month in pass rush and just using the tools Coach Herbert has provided me in the offseason. It’s going to be fun.
“If (the defense wasn’t) better than we were last year, I think it would be a huge disappointment to everyone involved.”