Mazi Smith has always been a bigger guy.
The junior defensive tackle arrived in Ann Arbor weighing roughly 290 pounds — not huge for a college defensive lineman, but still substantial for someone just out of high school. With the right diet and the benefits of a Division I strength and conditioning program, he could put on 30 to 40 pounds relatively quickly and contribute on the interior early in his career.
In limited snaps his first two seasons, though, there was a problem with that. Unlike his successor, former Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown didn’t want size; he wanted speed.
“My diet had been very, very strict,” Smith told reporters Monday. “It ain’t like I wasn’t eating or nothing, but to get down to like 295, or 300 — I’m naturally a guy that’d be 315, 320.”
Brown’s defensive philosophy was fairly simple: load the roster with speedy players, blitz the hell out of the linebackers and use their elite sideline-to-sideline speed to swarm the ball carrier. That lack of size on the defensive line may have left some coaches feeling uneasy, yet Brown had little to worry about — he had electric talents like first-round NFL Draft picks Jabrill Peppers or Devin Bush shooting the gaps.
But once that talent dried up, problems abounded. In 2020, with no real presence at nose tackle and no elite linebackers to plug holes, the Wolverines found themselves gashed up the middle over and over again, finishing with the Big Ten’s 10th-best rushing defense. Truthfully, the recompense was a long time coming — Michigan hasn’t had a high-level defensive tackle since Maurice Hurst graduated in 2017.
Now, though, the program has options. In addition to Smith, who says he’s now up to 318 pounds, the competition for snaps at defensive tackle will feature junior and former 5-star Christopher Hinton and fifth-year senior Donovan Jeter. All three have gained weight to fit new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s 3-4 system, which embraces size on the interior so the tackles can better fill gaps, occupy offensive linemen and free up linebackers.
“I kind of fit right in,” Smith said. “I gained the weight I was supposed to and was pretty comfortable. It felt right.”
For Hinton, part of the challenge will be making up for lost time from the spring, when he tested positive for COVID-19. He told reporters Tuesday that he missed essentially the entire first half of spring ball as a result of the positive test, which came on the third day of practice.
Learning an entirely new defensive system is hard enough on its own; doing so without the benefit of spring practice and while recovering from a serious disease makes it that much more challenging.
“I felt a little bit behind because they had a couple practices ahead of me,” Hinton said. “But I feel like I’m a fast learner with the defense. … When I first got (COVID-19), I was hurting a little bit, but once I got back, I never felt anything with my breathing or anything, thank God.”
Since his recovery, Hinton says he’s gotten up to 310 pounds, but it’s unclear if the added weight and lost practice time might affect his stamina moving forward.
If it does, that potentially means more time for Jeter, who has been praised by his teammates for having the best camp of his career. It’s not the first time Jeter has garnered hype in the offseason, but 2021 will be his last chance to actually live up to it with Michigan.
“(Jeter’s) just being more consistent,” Hinton said. “I think he’s doing a really good job at being a leader for everybody in the room — the young guys, too. He’s been playing well all camp, using his hands, just things that sometimes he would be inconsistent (with), but I’ve seen a lot of consistency with (Jeter).”
Other players will pick up snaps on the interior at times — graduate transfer Jordan Whittley is listed at 348 pounds and figures as a short-yardage specialist, while senior Julius Welschof was 33rd on Bruce Feldman’s annual freaks list for The Athletic. But, to fix the Wolverines’ long-standing problems at defensive tackle, one of Smith, Jeter or Hinton will need to pop.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Then again, after a 2-4 season, pretty much everything is.