Entering the 2021 season, a question mark surrounded the Michigan football team’s defensive line.
The unit boasted senior Aidan Hutchinson, a second-team preseason All-American who seemed to be primed for a dominant year. However, Hutchinson was the only known commodity; the other defensive linemen were enigmas, talented but unproven players whose status as highly-touted recruits had not yet translated into on-field production.
After two games, Hutchinson has performed as anticipated. Following a 2.5 sack performance against Washington, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh accurately quipped that the Huskies couldn’t block Hutchinson.
“I think when you look at how you want to play football at Michigan, he’s the first guy you look at,” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said on Wednesday.
While Hutchinson serves as the anchor, the defensive line has been far from a one-man wrecking crew. On the edge, junior Mike Morris and graduate student Taylor Upshaw have emerged as consistent threats flanking Hutchinson. Inside, sophomore Kris Jenkins, junior Chris Hinton and junior Mazi Smith have helped stifle opponents to just 2.6 yards per rush.
“We’re playing at a high level of intensity,” Jenkins said on Tuesday. “You can tell when we go out, we’re ready to make a play, we’re ready to start fast off the ball, we’re ready to make that first play and take their heart from there, just let them know we’re playing like this all game.”
Under Don Brown’s unorthodox defensive scheme, Michigan prioritized slimmer, mobile defensive linemen, placing an emphasis on speed and quickness. But Macdonald threw that philosophy out the window, implementing a more traditional 3-4 scheme. As such, the defensive line had to recalibrate or risk losing significant playing time, making the offseason a formative one.
Jenkins, for instance, spent the summer working alongside team nutritionists and the strength and conditioning staff to bulk up. He ultimately gained 15 pounds, pushing his playing weight to 265 pounds. The added weight allows him to better handle the rugged trenches and cope with potential double teams.
So far, the transformation is paying dividends. Jenkins, who appeared in just one game as a freshman, drew his first career start last week against Washington.
“He’s very effective in what we’re asking him to do,” Macdonald said. “It’s a pleasant surprise to see how well he can pick it up and carve out a niche in this defense.”
That first part, regarding Jenkins’s ability to meet the Wolverines’ specific demands, is particularly important. Last season, Hutchinson, Kwity Paye and Carlo Kemp took the bulk of the snaps along the defensive line. This year, playing time is more of a revolving door. A player like Jenkins isn’t being asked to be Hutchinson; rather, he just has to succeed in his specific role in short bursts.
“It’s definitely a good feeling when you’re going to come out of the game, you already know the next guy is ready to go,” Jenkins said. “He knows what he has to do. He knows what they’re going to do. It’s a good feeling, because we’re all fresh.”
That speaks to the growing culture of player accountability that Michigan continues to preach.
“I tell our players: if you’re playing well enough to play, you’re going to play,” Macdonald said. “And then we’re gonna try to figure out what you do well and put you in those situations. A lot of it’s matchup-based. I’d say it’s intentional, but also, hey, let’s play the guys that can help us win.”
And so far, for the 2-0 Wolverines, that formula has worked to a tee.