When Mazi Smith talks, people tend to listen.
The senior defensive tackle and captain doesn’t do it all that much. He isn’t the loudest person on the No. 3 Michigan football team, nor is he the most vocal leader.
But he sets an example, one that everyone can’t help but follow.
“I’m not that big on being talkative or vocal… I’m just kinda myself,” Smith told The Daily. “Some people gravitate towards that, some people don’t. … It’s just trying your best to steer yourself in the right direction, hold yourself accountable and do that for everyone around you too. I think when you do that for yourself it’s kind of contagious.”
When talking to Smith, it’s easy to understand why that is. His wisdom shows beyond his years. When answering questions, he’ll pause to formulate the best response. His words are always chosen carefully, and his sentences are as precise as his voice is low.
There’s a reason people look up to him, a reason that he’s the leader of the Wolverines’ defense. Some say it’s his work ethic, some say it’s his passion and others will tell you that it’s something else entirely. Whatever it is that makes people want to follow Smith, that’s hardly the point.
Smith exists as himself, and people want to be around him. Or, as Smith’s high school strength and conditioning coach Marty Martens put it: People want to be like him.
“You want to be like Mazi,” Martens told The Daily. “They’d watch him and see his technique, passion and strength… you can’t help but get motivated.”
Martens coached Smith at East Kentwood, but it’s clear that Smith garners the same type of respect at Michigan, not just on the field, but off it as well.
There are a lot of things to know about Smith. Some details provide insight into why he is who he, while others simply add to his mythos. He loves food — wings specifically — and he doesn’t care all that much about stardom, even though it’s followed him around throughout his football career.
East Kentwood high school football coach Anthony Kimbrough gushed at lengths about Smith and the weight of his words:
“He’s a pretty serious guy,” Kimbrough told The Daily. “Not a lot of fooling around, joking around, so if he has something to say it’s usually pretty serious, pretty intelligent and people listen.”
Smith doesn’t fit the tradition football captain mold. He wasn’t born with the prowess that he has today — he had to earn that at East Kentwood.
Kimbrough and Martens would both tell you how much Smith has changed physically since they first met him around the eighth grade. At the same time, though, they’ll also emphasize how he’s still the same guy off the field.
For the East Kentwood Falcons, Smith was the same subtle leader that he is for the Wolverines, and that showed throughout their program. He had even more recognition at East Kentwood, sure, with Kimbrough going as far to call him a bit of a local celebrity.
When recounting stories about Smith, both Kimbrough and Martens were laughing; It was clear how much they care about Smith — how much he means to those around him.
That energy is another reason why people follow him.
And that’s easy to see when talking to Smith. He’s not loud, but his words are strong.
Interspersed between carefully thought-out answers about the game, Smith spoke on wealth, philosophy and his own personal goals beyond the football field.
“I come from humble beginnings, in the sport of football and in life,” Smith said. “… after a while you start realizing that money can’t buy nothing. It can’t buy happiness, loyalty, friendship. People think it can, but really it’s empty.
“When I look at life, I want to be full, personally.”
Smith defines that sense of fulfillment as much more than material wealth or personal success. Those things could come naturally on his current path, but that isn’t why he does it. In his eyes, being “full” comes from the impact he has on others.
After all, what good is success without others to share it with?
He wants to be the best, yes, but Smith also wants everyone around him to be right there at the top with him. He doesn’t want to find success on his own becuase, to him, it’s meaningless at that point.
“I want everybody to eat, you know?” Smith said. “Of course you want to be successful yourself, but personal success doesn’t really matter, to me, if you’re not paying it forward and helping the next guy.”
In just a ten minute conversation with Smith, it was easy to see why so many people look up to him. His words border on gospel, and Schembechler Hall is his cathedral.
The thing is, too, is that almost all of what Smith says is coming to fruition. Smith’s ascent wasn’t rapid, the growth curve didn’t look exponential, but now that he’s at the top — literally and figuratively. So too is his unit.
Right now, Michigan boasts the best defense in the country by many accounts — No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 1 in rushing defense, the list goes on.
That success starts with Smith.
In his role at nose tackle, or the “tip of the spear” as he likes to call it, Smith constantly eats up double teams like they’re his favorite food, his block destruction sets the tone and he’s always in the right spot. He is the anchor of Michigan’s top-ranked rushing defense, and is thus at the forefront of his unit’s stellar season.
But again, his impact doesn’t stop off the field. He leads through select words here and there, but mainly through action. Just ask his teammates:
“The effect he has on our defense is way more than anybody could ever imagine,” junior defensive lineman Kris Jenkins said Monday. “We wouldn’t be at this position without him at all. … (He) really inspires us to play better.”
Praise like that isn’t new for Smith. Kimbrough said that it’s been like that since high school, and it’s always been something Smith has cherished.
“Looking back I’ve been preparing for these moments my entire life,” Smith said. “… In high school, my cousin told me to bring the culture that I wanted to see here — of the D-line. Try and show everybody the way.”
“I tell the young guys that we’re gonna turn this place into D-line U, it already is, for real,” he said. “It’s just going to fill me with so much joy and happiness and pride to say that when I was here, these guys looked up to me,” he paused taking a moment to think.
“I left my mark, everywhere you go you want to leave your mark. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
Smith’s impact on the field is much like his leadership. It’s subdued, it’s not loud or in your face but it’s always there. It can always be felt.
Smith has molded Michigan’s defensive line in his image, both in attitude and in success. He’s certainly left his mark, and if you need to know what that means to hin, there’s only one thing you have to do:
Just listen to him.