Eyes and ears were fixated as Chase Winovich repeated Mike Hart’s “little brother” remarks on television after topping Michigan State. All of the hype, eye-rolls or whatever you felt was translated to a sustained social media frenzy.
Josh Uche’s TV interview followed and hardly a peep was made of it. Speaking after Winovich, one could imagine, is a tough act to follow. With his eyes wide-open, the junior defensive end was loud and clear.
“All that celebrating, all that talking (the Spartans were) doing before the game, all that just fueled the fire,” a fiery Uche shouted into the microphone. “We love that, man. We love that shit. Excuse my language, but this is what we do. If you want to talk that talk, well, we can walk that walk. We just came out and dominated like we were supposed to.”
Uche rarely, if ever, likes to talk about himself — his impact is often muffled amongst a star-studded defensive unit anyway. But in the wake of an injury with an unknown timeline to defensive end Rashan Gary, Uche has seamlessly filled his absence and shined. His two sacks against Michigan State upped his season total to five — a team high.
Not too shabby for a second-stringer.
“Yeah, Josh Uche’s playing really good ball,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on Monday. “Two big sacks in the game. Really coming off the edge with speed and power, and impacting the games. He’s doing a great job.”
It’s difficult to characterize Uche’s play as surprising given the track record of Don Brown defenses. But the ascendance of Uche rests squarely on his shoulders.
It started with a conversation Brown recalled with Uche.
"After the (2017) bowl game, we had a discussion because he wanted to play more,” Brown remembered prior to the 2018 season opener. “He wanted to fight me, I think. He wants to play. It's easy to say, 'Hey coach, I want to play. Let me play.' Go earn it, how about that? How about go earn it? Well, he's earned it. I think that's probably fair to say.”
Uche’s no-nonsense pragmatism has become his trademark. It could just be a byproduct of being on the No. 1-ranked defense in the country through eight weeks. When asked about what the team’s trademark was, Uche retorted “You tell me?” like it was sacreligious that he was being asked to spell it out.
He’s blunt and confident, beyond overused media platitudes. What did he have to say after a second-half shutout and game-ending sack against Northwestern?
“We knew they couldn’t really hang with us.”
And after a sack and dominant performance against Wisconsin?
“We’ve been a dominant defense all year, that’s what we do. … If they gave up, that’s on them, that’s a personal problem on their side.”
Beating offenses into submission has been a theme of Michigan’s 2018 defense, though, and Uche has been a spark plug for that tendency. He is listed at 238 pounds and runs a 4.5 forty-yard dash according to Brown, who also said he “gave (strength and conditioning coach) Ben Herbert a kiss on the lips for that.”
But his technique has also been revelatory. Scrolling through Uche’s Twitter, you can find videos he retweeted after the Michigan State game with hundreds of likes that dissects how he swatted an opposing lineman’s hands to create a path to the quarterback.
If Gary returns this season, the defense will have that much of an easier time staying as the top-ranked defense, with Uche maintaining a prominent spot in that defensive line rotation.
He may not be a household name like Winovich, Gary or junior linebacker Devin Bush Jr. But Uche has the same intensity, if not greater. In that same post-game interview, he was asked what he felt about Bush’s pre-game yelling and field stomping.
“We from the same place, I wouldn’t expect anything less than that,” Uche said. “I would’ve done the same thing.”
And he stared at the interviewer like he was angry, even in the most celebratory moment of Michigan’s season.