It looked like a normal play in a normal game, when Iowa wide receiver Keenan Davis caught the ball on a crossing route with redshirt junior linebacker Kenny Demens giving chase on the Hawkeyes’ first drive of the game. Davis easily pulled away from Demens for a 44-yard gain. It was one of just three plays of 40 or more yards that the Wolverines defense has this season. Three hours later, the play was largely forgotten about due to last-second drama.
Three days later, it made sense.
Demens wasn’t supposed to be the man to chase him all the way to the sideline. But defensive coordinator Greg Mattison cited Demens’s ability to run as one of his strengths. He wasn’t expected to run down receivers, but still, he got dusted.
Tuesday, Mattison revealed the answer to Demens’s lack of burst: he had played the whole game with a hamstring injury. According to Michigan coach Brady Hoke, Demens had been playing with the ailment for a while.
“I venture to say there’s a lot of players that would have tapped out right there,” Mattison said of Demens playing against the Hawkeyes. “You could see as he was going to the football, that speed was not there. He played with something that maybe a lot of guys wouldn’t have played with.”
Despite the big play early, Demens continued on. Junior defensive end Craig Roh said Tuesday that he “had no idea” Demens was injured. Hoke knew, but that didn’t make a difference.
“I didn’t feel the pain, let’s put it that way,” Hoke said.
Demens’s 62 tackles this season are the most on the team. But more importantly, Demens has appeared in 34 straight contests, playing in every game since he redshirted his freshman season. But Demens hadn’t a game started until midway through last season.
With a new coaching staff coming into the season, Demens entered camp battling senior J.B. Fitzgerald for the middle linebacker spot. According to Mattison, it didn’t talk long for Demens to separate himself.
Now, Demens rarely rotates out. As the quarterback of Mattison’s defense Demens has four or five pre-snap checks he could make before every snap. Starting his 16th game this Saturday alongside two freshman linebackers in Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan, Demens has taken over the reins of the defense.
“At this point you hope he doesn’t look new at all,” Mattison said. “It was a learning process for him and I think it was a learning process in the spring but he’s gotten better and better.”
It was true Saturday. By the end of the game, Demens had recovered from the long play. He finished with 11 tackles, the highest total on the team.
And with two and a half minutes left, Iowa had a 3rd-and-1. A first down would likely end the game. As Hawkeye running back Marcus Coker took the handoff, Demens and Ryan charged into the backfield and hauled him down for a one-yard loss, setting up the Wolverines’ final drive.
“The guy’s built like a tank,” Roh said. “He’s big guy, and he’s stout and he can come in and hit people. I love how he plays.”
Injured or not.