Back in August, the expectations for the now-No. 3 Michigan football team’s defense weren’t high. They weren’t necessarily low, either, but people expected regression.
How couldn’t they? Last season’s defense was a sharp jump up from its previous form, but the offseason was defined by departures.
Three first-round NFL picks — Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo and Dax Hill — and the man at the top, defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, all left for the pros. The Wolverines couldn’t reasonably be expected to maintain their form.
The label the coaches and players gave it — “no star defense” — didn’t inspire any outside confidence, either. But inside the program, confidence never wavered.
“We really didn’t put any limit to the expectations,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “We thought that our defense could be really good, … called it the ‘no name’ defense, in some ways. … (We’re) playing great team defense. Each position group is really playing outstanding and they’re playing outstanding together.”
In a moment unlike Harbaugh, he understated his defense’s success. Currently, the Wolverines tout the No. 1 overall spot in total defense, scoring defense and run defense, and sit at No. 4 in passing yards allowed. Opponents’ experience with Michigan’s defense is similar to that of a wrestling match with an anaconda: suffocating.
That starts with the defensive line, and the defensive line starts with stopping the run.
“We’ve been stressing it all year — all year starting in January — we really wanted to pride ourselves on being one of the most physical, most disrupting defensives in the country,” junior defensive lineman Kris Jenins said Monday. “… So we pride ourselves in being able to stop the run first. That way we can open up the opportunity to go after the pass. … (We’ve) really been trying to get gritty so we can take advantage and have some fun later.”
So far, that dedication to run-stopping is paying dividends. Opposing offenses can’t get anything going on the ground, and that’s constantly given the Wolverines the advantage in games, resulting in one-dimensional attacks that often end scoreless.
At the front of that defense, the “spearhead” as he likes to call it, is senior defensive lineman Mazi Smith. Smith is the key, the linchpin, the “spearhead,” the crux or whatever other word means “most important part” of Michigan’s defensive line — and as a result, the entire defense.
“Regardless of the numbers or what his stats might say, … the effect that he has on our entire defense is way more than anybody could ever imagine,” Jenkins said. “We wouldn’t be at this position without him at all. He’s definitely, without a doubt, one of the best defensive tackles in the country.”
If the Wolverines still believe this is a “no star” defense, then Smith must be an entire galaxy. Opponents run away from him — and right into the ensnaring arms of his teammates. And if they make the mistake of running at him, Smith will take care of it himself.
That dynamic is all-but every reason why Michigan’s run-stopping ability and defense has been so successful. This Saturday, though, Illinois running back Chase Brown looms.
“Our run wall has been very good,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be tested this week probably like none other up to this point.”
If Smith, Jenkins and the defensive line can maintain their success against Brown, there’s not much else the Fighting Illini can do. It’s the blueprint the defense operates on, and it’s worked all season: take away the run, force them to pass; force them to pass, create pressure; create pressure, force mistakes; force mistakes, win.
It worked just this past weekend, and the Wolverines expect it to work again Saturday.
In that gameplan, the defensive line is Michigan’s shining star.