‘I have to speak up’: Kwity Paye tackles leadership role on Michigan defense

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor – Kwity Paye was never much for talking on the field. Although he was confident in his skill when he became part of the Michigan defensive line, he fell into that lead-by-example category.

Kwity Paye

There were big personalities already in place when he arrived, and as a freshman, his job was to watch and learn. And learn some more. As the journey progressed, and now as he’s about to begin his junior season, Paye has gained more confidence. That can reveal itself in many ways, but for Paye, a defensive end whose role will be even more significant this fall, it has helped him evolve into more of a vocal leader.

Paye said he has worked in the offseason on being a veteran player who speaks up more. He needs to be that guy in large part because of the departures of defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich.

“There’s a lot of young guys on the team,” Paye said Wednesday night after practice. “There’s a lot of young guys on the D-line, actually. So I’ve just got to be the guy to pull guys aside who are messing up in practice and say, ‘Let’s work on this today.’ I’m going into my junior year now, so I feel like I have to speak up. I can’t be that guy who leads by example. I have to have the voice.”

He also has to have the ability, and Paye proved that last season making three starts during the regular season when Gary was out with a shoulder injury. Paye also started the bowl game. He finished with 29 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and two sacks, and one forced fumble.

Gaining confidence last season is why Paye has begun to feel more comfortable as a player who can rally the younger players.

“Some guys need someone to talk to them,” he said. “Some guys need guys to pull them aside, ‘Hey, you need to do this. You need to work on that.’ Even when practice was slow – practice was a little slow (Wednesday) – but Josh Metellus came along and said, ‘Hey defense, let’s go. Let’s pick it up.’ The whole defense rallied and practice ended well. If our defense is coming out a little slow, I’ll tell the defense, ‘Come on, let’s go. Let’s pick up the tempo.’”

Paye, along with the other veterans on the defensive line, are being taught by new position coach Shaun Nua, who replaced Greg Mattison. Nua took the linemen out for dinner to get to know them and then met with each individually.

Nua already likes what he has seen from Paye.

“He pushes the guys,” Nua said last week, saying Paye will yell about a number of things, like the pad level being too high. “He’s a special player. I can’t wait for him to do his thing.”

While he’s under a new defensive line coach, Paye benefits from being in the same system under coordinator Don Brown. He did get the experience of starting four games last season, but he also has a firm understanding of Brown’s defense and doesn’t have to think and can play faster because it’s now second nature.

Kwity Paye

“Not really worrying about my technique anymore, because it’s been installed in my head because I’ve been taking so many reps where I can do it without thinking about it,” Paye said. “So, now it’s just about making sure I’m running to the ball, make sure I’m doing everything I need to do.”

There are plenty of younger players on the defensive line, including early-enrollee freshmen Dave Ojabo, Gabe Newburg and Mazi Smith. That makes Paye’s leadership vital.

“We’re young, but we’ve got guys that want to play,” he said. “We’ve got guys that want to take reps. Our young guys are hungry. They’re trying to take as many reps as they can. I tell them about my story about my freshman year, I got the opportunity because Chase (Winovich) was a little injured and Coach Matty made me take all his reps. I was able to learn all my plays faster and just get more comfortable.”

Paye has been particularly impressed by Smith, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 303 pounds.

“Mazi’s strong. He’s stronger than me,” Paye said. “Our winter lifts, he wasn’t one of the guys to be a shy freshman. He came in with the mindset of, ‘I want to contribute. I want to be part of this D-line.’ I feel like he’ll contribute a lot this year.”

Joining Paye as returners are tackles Carlo Kemp and Michael Dwumfour and end Aidan Hutchinson. Mike Danna, a graduate transfer from Central Michigan, also will add experience. But it is the younger linemen Paye is focused on helping, and that’s why he has developed his voice. Now he can tell them to watch him and listen to him.

“I make sure I work with them every single day after practice because for me, Chase and Rashan were those guys that took me after practice and were like, ‘Let’s work on this.’” Paye said. “Every day, I say, ‘Let’s focus on one thing today and let’s work on that the whole day.’”