Carlo Kemp started the first game of his career Saturday at defensive tackle. With both sophomore nose guard Aubrey Solomon and fifth-year senior defensive tackle Lawrence Marshall out due to injuries, it was a moment three years in the making for the redshirt sophomore.
“It was my first time playing and having a majority of snaps during a football game, so it just felt really good to be out there and run around and just play football,” Kemp said. “It’s been a while since I got a lot of snaps.”
That’s partly because Kemp has twice changed positions with the Michigan football team. When he first came to Ann Arbor in the spring of 2016, Kemp cut ten pounds to practice at outside linebacker. But he didn’t feel comfortable there, and after receiving limited action his freshman year, Kemp switched back to defensive end.
Drawing from familiarity playing the position in high school, it was a more natural fit for him. That still didn’t equate to playing time. Firmly behind now-junior Rashan Gary at Michigan’s anchor spot, Kemp registered just three tackles and one quarterback pressure in 2017.
So early this past winter, he went to defensive line coach Greg Mattison with a proposal: move to the three-technique defensive tackle. Kemp didn’t have interior line experience, and he knew the change meant embarking on an ultra-intense workout and eating regimen to gain weight. It was a challenge Kemp was ultimately willing to undertake.
“Even if it meant being a backup, just letting coach Mattison know, ‘Hey, I want to learn it at least’ just so he has that option,” Kemp said. “I think he liked the idea of me coming to him and asking him.”
Thus Kemp began working at both defensive tackle and anchor during spring practices, picking up on sometimes subtle differences in footwork and blocking. Kemp now feels like he’s honing in his technique, but it wasn’t an easy process.
“For me, it was pretty tough just because I hadn’t done it and it’s a whole lot faster,” Kemp said. “At the anchor position, you just got to watch that tight end and whatever he does you just kinda play off it. If you try to mirror anyone’s footwork inside, you’re gonna end up 10 yards running into your linebackers messing up the whole defensive play.
“On the inside, you got to play even more aggressive since you got the guard and the tackle to worry about, and you’re getting 600 pounds on you on every play.”
More on the mental side, that number represented Kemp’s biggest hurdle to changing positions. He’d already cut 10 pounds to play outside linebacker. Now, Kemp would have to beef up to hold his own at three-tech.
And with plenty of targeted eating and protein shakes, Kemp did just that. He went from around 275 to 295 pounds, becoming one of the team’s most physically imposing players in the process.
“Just really strong, he’s playing really strong,” said coach Jim Harbaugh. “Very dedicated player who we had no hesitation starting and playing him a lot. He’s coming into his own. Physically, the strength is showing up.”
It showed when Michigan needed it on Saturday. Kemp, who rotated with junior Michael Dwumfour and fifth-year senior Bryan Mone, made two tackles and was instrumental on junior defensive end Rashan Gary’s first sack of the season. Bull rushing the left guard in the first quarter, Kemp closed off both inside gaps, allowing Gary to come off the edge and tackle Western Michigan quarterback Jon Wassink for a loss.
Kemp is far from a finished product at defensive tackle, and the Wolverines would benefit significantly from the returns of Solomon and Marshall, who are “week to week” according to Harbaugh. But so far, Kemp’s long transition has worked out for both him and Michigan.
“You just want to get on the field,” Kemp said. “So if they recommend moving inside, I’m not gonna fight that. I’m going to be the best at the three-tech that I can and just fight my way on the field.”