It’s been two years since Michigan parted ways with Don Brown, but the former defensive coordinator is still making an impact on senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith.
“When Don Brown was still here, the one thing he said was, ‘You can’t have a good defense without a nose,’ ” Smith remembered Monday. “You see it in the league. Everybody needs a nose.”
Smith has taken Brown’s saying to heart. Nose tackle is not a glamorous position — it’s not conducive to highlights or stats — but Smith has come to embrace that nature.
“That’s kinda what the nose is supposed to do,” Smith said. “If the nose isn’t doing his job, nine times out of ten, the rest of them aren’t gonna do their job.”
Jim Harbaugh’s best defenses have revolved around dominant defensive lines and, in particular, productive nose tackles — think Mo Hurst and Ryan Glasgow. In other years, gaping voids up the middle have served as the unit’s downfall. Remember the Ben Mason experiment?
In Smith, Michigan boasts one of the nation’s top nose tackles.
Two weeks ago, defensive coordinator Jesse Minter noted that Smith was “primed and ready to go” ahead of Big Ten play. Smith made good on Minter’s proclamation with a dominant eight tackle performance against Maryland. Ahead of last week’s game against Iowa, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz labeled the 337-pound Smith a “refrigerator that can move.”
Iowa’s defense honed in on Smith, sending a myraid of double teams his way. Smith had just two tackles, but that hardly tells the story of his play.
“It’s not frustrating because if you’re not doubling me, you don’t respect what I do,” Smith said. “If they’re not doubling me, they’re gonna be doubling somebody else. I’d rather be the one getting doubled.”
Smith emphasized that the entire defensive line feeds off one another. It’s clear, though, that Smith is incredibly valuable.
He is leading the charge for an unproven defensive line, one still searching for a way to replicate the production of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. On a “no star defense,” Smith shines bright, even when it doesn’t show up in the box score.
Smith, one of five team captains, sets the tone.
That much was evident Saturday in Iowa City. Michigan stymied Iowa’s offense for much of the game. But, early in the fourth quarter, the Hawkeyes found a rhythm, notching a touchdown and taking their subsequent drive deep into Wolverines’ territory. The momentum appeared to be shifting.
Smith knew that would happen. His recognition made it easier for Michigan to respond.
“People settle into the game, start to understand what type of rusher you are, what type of packages you’re putting onto the field and they start to fight back,” Smith said. “Teams aren’t gonna lay down. They have players, too. You have to keep playing for four quarters.”
And that’s what the Wolverines did. Notably, on Iowa’s last-ditch drive in the fourth quarter, Michigan notched three consecutive sacks, a convincing exclamation point. Smith called the performance “spectacular.”
Smith may be dominant, but he is particularly humble and soft-spoken. He remembers a time not too long ago when he was a part of the problem, a part of the lack of production up the middle that left Michigan’s defense vulnerable to the run.
He played just eight games across his first two seasons and endured a key loss, too: Days before he stepped on campus as an early enrollee, his primary recruiter — then-defensive line coach Greg Mattison — left for Ohio State. That’s a difficult position for a freshman to be in.
But Smith lived in the weight room, laying the foundation for his success today.
“I’m a real strong guy,” Smith said. “The nose has to be the strongest person on the field. That’s the tip of the spear. You can’t be soft there. They’ll run all over you.”
Not only is Smith strong, he is freakishly strong — The Athletic appointed him the No. 1 “freak” on its annual College Football Freaks List, enamored with Smith’s rare combination of power and agility.
Freakish or not, Smith is constantly looking to get better. For a nose tackle, self-assessment is a bit more unorthodox — there are hardly any statistics to go by. So, in each film session, Smith asks himself a number of questions:
“Am I getting moved off the ball? If the play did come to me, would I have made it? Was I doing my job? Was I allowing somebody else to me? Was I making the ball cut back and setting the edge to the defense from the inside?”
Those questions help reveal another important aspect of Smith — he is incredibly introspective. He recognizes, for instance, both his importance as the spear and the importance of each individual player, deferring to his teammates’ performance multiple times on Tuesday.
That’s why, when told of his “refrigerator” moniker, Smith merely smiled.
“Whatever you’re gonna call me, you’re gonna see me on gameday,” Smith said with a chuckle.
Right now, that’s a scary thought for the opposition.