When Aidan Hutchinson announced his return to the Michigan football team for his senior season last December, he offered a number of reasons.
Above all, though, he wanted to avenge a junior season that ended with a fractured leg after just three games. As he watched from the sidelines, the Wolverines sputtered to a losing record for the first time since 2014.
“Last year’s 2-4 record wasn’t very Michigan-like,” Hutchinson said in December. “I want to come back and reset the culture here and get back to our winning ways.
Sure, Hutchinson would’ve been selected if he bolted early for the NFL Draft. But instead, the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder opted to return to Ann Arbor. He’s used the opportunity to establish himself as a star in first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s 3-4 defense. At this point, it’s more often to see him line up against double-teams than single blocks.
Those offensive adjustments haven’t done much to stop Hutchinson, however. Through four games, he’s racked up 15 tackles, a nation-leading 5.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. His ability to blow up plays in the backfield has made a big difference on third and fourth down, allowing the Wolverines to get off the field quickly. As a result, Hutchinson’s draft stock has skyrocketed, cementing him as a consensus top-10 prospect as he pops up on early-season Heisman watch lists.
When Michigan defensive line coach Shaun Nua was asked about Hutchinson on Wednesday, he couldn’t help but flash a grin.
“Hungry for greatness, hungry to match his potential,” Nua said. “… He’s relentless. He’s aggressive, smart, and it’s exactly what you want to have on your football team. Usually, when you’re the most talented player, you hardly pick up effort plays, but there were a couple plays where you just watched and he’s chasing the ball carrier all the way down the sideline and full dive towards his ankles trying to get him down.
“Anytime you have that type of talent plus the effort, you’ve got something special there. That’s how he is.”
Hutchinson’s dominance was a big factor in Michigan’s 4-0 September. The Wolverines are up to No. 14 in the AP Poll, suggesting last year’s dismal campaign may have been an anomaly rather than the new normal. Perhaps most importantly, the team’s defense is playing with the confidence and swagger it lacked throughout 2020.
But, as a two-time captain, Hutchinson’s impact runs deeper than his play itself. He’s one of Michigan’s most vocal defensive players, and his return re-energized the unit and helped guide their offseason transition to a new scheme. After finishing as the Big Ten’s second-worst scoring defense in 2020, the Wolverines are the second-best so far this year. That transformation starts at the top with Hutchinson.
“Yeah, anytime you have (Hutchinson), everybody’s got to match that,” Nua said. “And they’re doing a great job of just looking up to their captain, their leader doing that. They’ve got to match that and that develops a great culture of relentless effort because talent alone ain’t going to do it. We all know that. When your captains and your leaders are doing that, we’ve got something special going.”
As a defensive line coach, Nua spends countless hours tinkering with Xs and Os to put his players in a position to succeed. For some players, finding an impact role requires continuous tweaking. Hutchinson, on the other hand, makes Nua’s job easy.
“You put him in a position where he can just go dominate,” Nua said. “… But Aidan’s such a great player, shoot, he can dominate from wherever we put him.”