Through three games, the Michigan football team’s defense has looked the part of a formidable unit. Under the tutelage of first-year defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, the Wolverines have allowed just 17 points and are coming off a dominant shutout against UConn.
The performance, though, merits a disclaimer; Michigan’s non-conference schedule was particularly soft. So Saturday’s clash with Maryland, a team that is averaging 40.3 points per game so far, looms as the defense’s first true challenge.
“They definitely have some better players than what we’ve seen so far,” Minter said Wednesday. “I’m excited to see how we play.”
Here are three takeaways from Minter’s press conference, his first time speaking to the media since the season began.
Mazi Smith’s commanding presence
Smith, a senior defensive tackle, gained national attention in August after being ranked as the No. 1 freak in college football, on The Athletic’s annual Freaks List. In that piece, Bruce Feldman wrote that Smith’s skillset is so rare that “it’s hard to find the right superlative to begin with.”
So far this season, Smith has been rather quiet, notching just six tackles and a sack. Minter attributed that subdued production to the attention Smith garners from opponents.
“He’s a guy that people have circled, especially in the run game,” Minter said. “He’s a force, an immovable object at times. So I think for him, it’s just continuing to play within the framework of the defense.”
Minter also alluded to the blue-collar nature of the nose tackle position. It’s often less glamorous than an edge rusher role, but equally imperative to the success of a defensive line.
“He sets it up for other people to make plays, and that’s what really good nose tackles do,” Minter said. “We have tried to — and want to continue to — involve him in some of our pass rush stuff. I think he has some strengths there that can help us.”
Smith, like a number of other starters, has not received a normal workload across the first three games, only playing a handful of quarters due to the lopsided scores. Against Maryland, though, expect Smith to be unleashed.
“He’s primed and fresh and ready to go, and I look forward to seeing him on Saturday,” Minter said.
Open rotation at safety
Last season, defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale appeared reluctant to rotate his safeties. Brad Hawkins occupied one spot, while then-freshman Rod Moore and then-sophomore R.J. Moten shared the second spot, rotating on a game-by-game basis.
Through three games this year, that hasn’t been the case. Moten, Moore and junior Makari Paige have all rotated amongst each other. That revolving door could be a product of the lopsided scores, which allow the Wolverines to experiment. Perhaps, though, it’s a harbinger of things to come.
“It’s always a competition,” Minter said. “I think all three of those guys have proven to be capable and trustworthy. In my mind, all three of those guys are starters. There’s times that they’re all on the field together. If you said pick two of the three, I don’t even know that I could. They’re all playing really well. All three bring a couple of different things to the table. So as we play more diverse offenses, there’s different things we can do with each of them.”
Paige in particular impressed with a strong performance in fall camp, inserting himself into the rotation. Moore, meanwhile, dazzled in the season-opener, notching his first career interception and sharing Michigan Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Inconsistent sack production
Michigan’s defensive line burst onto the scene with authority in Week One, notching a seven sack performance against Colorado State. Since then, though, the production has dipped — the Wolverines mustered just a single sack against Hawaii and did not record one against UConn.
In each case, Minter credited the opposition.
“Pass rush is a funny thing,” Minter said. “I think a lot of the second and third game was based on what happened in the first game and sort of the other team’s way to try and combat that. I’m not overly concerned. … I like where we’re at.”
Michigan’s onslaught against Colorado State also comes with an asterisk. The Rams allowed nine sacks in their Week Two bout with Middle Tennessee State and surrendered seven more against Washington State in Week Three. With that in mind, the Wolverines’ performance loses some of its luster.
At the same time, Michigan approached Hawaii and UConn with different game plans. The Rainbow Warriors made a concerted effort to get the ball out quickly, hampering the Wolverines’ ability to reach the quarterback. The Huskies, meanwhile, had a propensity for screens and quick throws, something Michigan was conscious of.
That being said, Minter conceded that there are still areas to grow.
“Guys know that there are opportunities to win one-on-ones that we still want to take advantage of,” Minter said.
That starts this week against the Terrapins, who boast the stiffest offensive line that Michigan has seen to date.