The No. 2 Michigan football team has plenty of depth, and it’s constantly using that to its advantage. So much so that it’s creating a little banter in the trenches at practice.
“That rally group, we joke around about it at practice when we do two minute drills,” senior edge rusher Braiden McGregor said Monday. “We get our rally group after four or five plays and the offensive line is like, ‘Oh you guys are fresh, aren’t you now.’ ”
Those quips from the offensive linemen at practice turn into struggles for opponents’ offensive line on game days, because the Wolverines’ “rally groups” keep their defensive lineman rotating throughout drives and throughout the game. It leaves fresh defensive lineman rushing against an o-line that slowly wears down as the game progresses.
Rally groups may sound like a fancy phrase for substitutions, and in a way it is. All teams make subs as the game progresses, but Michigan has leaned into it — both in coining the phrase and how it switches players. Instead of looking at substitutions as a dropoff in production for a brief moment to get stars a quick break, the Wolverines see subs on the d-line as an integral part of their strategy that is key in maintaining high-level production.
So when the defensive line is out there, there’s a crew on standby ready to rally. They aren’t coming to play a couple snaps as the starters drink Gatorade; they’re coming to elevate the line within the flow of the game.
“We always rallied but we wouldn’t say anything,” McGregor said. “So when (defensive line coach Mike Elston) got here he introduced like, ‘OK these are the guys that are starting off the series, and then you guys are rallying. Whoever it is, stand next to me and when we get a stoppage of play or if they sub personnel, (we’re) getting somebody to get in … to slow the offense down.’ ”
Those rally groups standing at the ready around Elston don’t just keep opponents on their toes, with fresh legs champing at the bit to switch in whenever the moment arises to get to work. It also keeps Michigan’s d-line both “mentally fresh” by knowing they have only a couple chances to perform before the next sub, and “physically fresh” by always being well rested.
But rally groups only work if the mindset is there.
“It’s not really a challenge,” junior defensive lineman Rayshaun Benny said Tuesday. “Because we know the talent we have across the board, so this goes with the whole ‘no one’s selfish’ (mindset). So we just take (it) for what it is and just enjoy the game, enjoy the win. We see our brothers eating, everyone making plays — we’re happy.”
Benny backed up his sentiment when asked about who he’d have on a 7-on-7 football roster. Although he was limited to listing only big men, he went ahead and rattled off the names of seven different defensive linemen. He clearly believes in his position group, and how constantly rotating players is the best way to maximize it.
While substitutions happen at every position, the systemic “rally group” concept is limited to the defensive line — for now.
“We do a thing with the defensive line: rally group,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “… We haven’t really done anything quite like that on the offensive line. But in spots, perhaps a rally guy goes in and he’s fresh and he’s good, can we use that to our advantage? I think we really have to explore that and look at that.”
Sure, no one is actively trying to get subbed out of a game, especially offensive linemen who pride themselves on moving the line of scrimmage on every snap. But a little rallying here and there can pay dividends on Saturdays, and Sundays.
“Especially after the game, I think we all came in Sunday like, ‘Dang, we don’t even feel bruised up. We don’t feel nothing at all,’ ” sophomore edge rusher Derrick Moore said Tuesday. “So having that rotation, it’s going to have us going fresh into another week. So it’s a good thing for us.”
With subs itching to get in the game early and often, Michigan’s d-line stays fresh. It’s a philosophy that may spread across the trenches to the offensive line, and maybe even across the whole depth chart. Wherever it ends up, it means one thing.
When it’s time to play, it’s time to rally.