On Wednesday, when asked to describe the progress made by Michigan’s defensive front, Shaun Nua merely shrugged his shoulders. But his answer hardly matched his demeanor:
“It’s amazing,” the defensive line coach, said. “There’s nothing like game reps, and the more you get reps, the better you get, especially for someone that takes their job seriously. All of those guys are doing a good job of focusing and getting better.”
No one within the program will say it outright, but expectations were certainly low for the Wolverines’ defensive line entering the season. At one point over the offseason, Michigan’s coaching staff met to discuss personnel; the group came to a rather straightforward conclusion. As Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh put it on Oct. 18, if the Wolverines were to contend, they “needed some guys to ascend, rise up” on the defensive line.
Seven games and seven victories later, the unit has certainly fulfilled Harbaugh’s request.
This isn’t Harbaugh’s most-talented defensive front across his years at the helm; it’s not even close. That being said, there’s an argument to be made that this is his most cohesive unit. They’re well-coached and play in a 3-4 system that rotates often and plays to their strengths; they work exceptionally hard. And they feed off one another.
Those ingredients have compensated for the unit’s collective youth and overall inexperience.
“That’s what this defense is predicated off of — communication,” senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said on Tuesday. “We’re all communicating, we’re all sound. We’re all on the same page.”
That’s an initiative that starts with Hutchinson, a two-time captain. Inside Michigan’s locker room, and especially amongst the defensive line, Hutchinson is the tone-setter.
Though poised to be a first-round pick in April’s NFL Draft, Hutchinson still critiques his game each week, probing for flaws as if he wasn’t an All-American-caliber player. Recently, he’s placed an emphasis on loading his front foot more when in his stance.
In practice, Hutchinson helps to curate a game-like atmosphere.
“You put on the practice film and there is not a play he takes off,” senior tight end Luke Schoonmaker said. “It’s contagious. It spreads to the whole defense. It fires them up.”
Yet Hutchinson is only part of the equation. As hard as the Wolverines try to disguise him — typically through varying responsibilities, which make it more difficult for the opposition to predict where he’ll line up on any given play — he is often double-teamed. It’s the emergence of those around him, then, that make the unit whole — the “ascending players,” as Harbaugh says.
There’s David Ojabo, not long ago a seldom-used edge rusher who has burst onto the scene as a junior, flanking Hutchinson to form a duo that Hutchinson dubbed “a force to be reckoned with.” In the interior, there’s junior tackles Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith, each once a highly-touted recruit, each at last living up to their potential.
Nua noted that Hinton has improved everything from his footwork, to his eyes, to his extension on blocks. He maintains that progress is rooted in off-the-field preparation.
“They’re doing a great job of honing in on their assignment and understanding our gameplan,” Nua said. “A good job of making sure they know what to do with our scheme and our system. We’re also encouraging them and challenging them to know their opponent.”
That last part is particularly relevant to Saturday’s showdown with the sixth-ranked Wolverines set to invade East Lansing to battle the eighth-ranked Spartans. Those strides will be put to the test against a formidable Michigan State offensive line which Nua repeatedly praised for its depth and experience.
For Michigan’s defense to be successful, the defensive line will have to create pressure on quarterback Peyton Thorne and contain running back Kenneth Walker, a dynamic Heisman hopeful.
Their execution in both of those facets poses ramifications for the rest of the defense.
“We may have great coverage, but if they don’t contain the quarterback, they’re gonna get a first down,” secondary coach Steve Clinkscale said on Oct. 20. “They might have good pressure but if our coverage stinks, they’re going to complete the ball. We gotta mirror.”
If they don’t, the Spartans will boast the upper-hand.