Michigan defensive lineman Donovan Jeter discusses the progress of the line this spring. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — This time last year, all the talk about Michigan’s defensive line centered on two players: Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich. But they’re gone now, awaiting the upcoming NFL Draft.
By no means is this a no-name defensive line entering the upcoming season. But it is, in some ways, an unknown defensive line.
There are names that should be familiar, though. Carlo Kemp is back in the interior, Michael Dwumfour is expected to be healthy, and Kwity Paye, who saw quite a bit of playing time last season replacing Gary when he was out with injury, is at defensive end along with Aidan Hutchinson, who also played a significant role last season as a freshman. Donovan Jeter has taken big steps in spring practice and should play a good deal this fall.
There are plenty of others, like Luiji Vilain, who is finally healthy after two years of injuries, and freshman Mazi Smith, who Michigan fans will see more of. But they’ll also see how first-year position coach Shaun Nua does in his new job after he replaced veteran line coach Greg Mattison, who is now the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State.
One thing is clear, though, as Michigan nears the conclusion of spring practice this week — the defensive linemen are done talking about Mattison and his departure for the Wolverines’ rival, and they’re moving beyond conversations suggesting the line will suffer with Gary and Winovich gone, along with Bryan Mone and Lawrence Marshall.
“I’ve seen the articles and everyone’s putting us at the back of the list,” Hutchinson said, sounding defiant, Saturday after the spring “game” at Michigan Stadium. “That just motivates us. We don’t really care what you have to say. We’re going to put our work in and it will show on the field.”
Jeter, who will be a redshirt sophomore, said he felt like a freshman last season after spending his first year at Michigan injured. He described an all-for-one approach.
“We’re counting on each other,” Jeter said. “Nobody’s above one another, but we know what we’ve got to accomplish together.”
The Mattison-to-Nua transition was embraced quickly by the players. Mattison will turn 70 later this year and Nua will turn 38 next month. The players said they relate to their new coach in large part because of his age, although they’re quick to point out that’s not a knock on Mattison. But Nua “gets” them, and in turn, they want to play well for him.
“Love him,” Hutchinson said. “Completely different experience than last year. Very new. He brings in the young aspect of coaching. He’s fiery, he’s fired up. He’s taught me a lot already.”
Nua took all the linemen out for dinner when he first arrived earlier this year and then met with them individually so they could get to know each other.
“He brings a different type of energy that Matty couldn’t bring,” Jeter said. “That’s not to put Matty down. He’s a former player, and he understands how we feel physically and mentally sometimes.”
Before spring practice started, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh raved about the early enrollee freshmen, including receiver Mike Sainristil and Smith. The 6-foot-3, 303-pound Smith, from East Kentwood in Grand Rapids, has impressed his teammates.
“(I tell him), ‘You have everything you need to be dominant right now,’” Jeter said of Smith. “Every day we’re in his ear like, ‘Keep working, keep working.’ He’s supposed to be in high school right now and the fact he’s out here and he’s making plays says a lot about his potential. This summer, he’s going to take a big jump.”
Jeter is certain Smith will earn plenty of playing time this fall.
“At all times, Mazi is the strongest person on the field,” Jeter said, adding he reminds him of Mone in that way. “When he’s on the field, nobody is stronger than him. Mazi’s technique is off and he’s still putting people two yards in the backfield. I tell him, ‘When you want to dominate, you will dominate.’ We’re in his ear every day, ‘Keep working, keep working.’”
The defense must also replace linebacker Devin Bush, the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year last year, and cornerback David Long while practicing against the Wolverines’ new up-tempo, no-huddle offense. The linemen said they are adjusting.
“I’m tired of them going hurry up. It’s annoying,” Jeter said, smiling. “It’s good for us. It’s good we see that early, because teams are going to try to go fast on us and try to hurry up and keep us off-kilter.
"It’s a blessing and curse the offense is doing it because there are days when you’re dead tired, but it’s going to be like that on Saturdays. So I’m glad our offense has changed everything, RPOs, fast, just that tempo creates a lot of problems.”