Michigan will be without some big names and experienced players on the defensive line this season, but that hasn’t been cause for uneasiness or hand-wringing among the coaches.
Starting defensive ends Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary are gone, as is nose tackle Bryan Mone and the experienced Lawrence Marshall.
And yet, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh believes there’s plenty of returning talent that might make for an even better line this fall.
“I think people are going to be surprised how good we are on the defensive line, because we lost quite a few good players, but we’ve got some good young players that we’re excited to see,” Harbaugh said this week on the “Pardon My Take” podcast. "Faster. Maybe the fastest defensive line we’ve had.”
There are new faces on the defensive line and a new coach in Shaun Nua, 38, who replaces Greg Mattison, now a co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State. The Wolverines are in their first full week of preseason camp as they prepare for the opener Aug. 31 against Middle Tennessee State.
“(He) brings energy brings enthusiasm, connects great with the players, loves to recruit,” Harbaugh said of Nua at Big Ten media days last month. “And he's got a presence on a field where he just he goes. He's a high-motor coach.”
Freshman defensive tackle Mazi Smith has impressed his teammates since his arrival, and he has been especially present in the weight room — “he’s killing it,” left guard Ben Bredeson said. The 6-foot-3, 305-pounder who played at East Kentwood in Grand Rapids last season, is expected to challenge for playing time.
Carlo Kemp, who moved inside before last season, returns, as do Michael Dwumfour and Donovan Jeter, along with Smith.
“They’re big guys,” Bredeson said. “They’re strong. That interior crew there, they’re not to be taken lightly."
Another player in the mix is Ben Mason, a fullback who has added about 20 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame and now weighs 270. He will be used in a number of ways on the field this fall but defensive coordinator Don Brown has said he admires Mason’s all-out approach to pretty much everything.
Regardless who’s in, the goal is to develop a greater pass rush this fall.
“Really getting pressure from the inside guys,” Harbaugh said. “And we have a chance to do that this year. There’s some athleticism in there with Jeter and with Dwumfour, with Ben Mason, guys that have that kind of ability and capability.”
An advantage, Harbaugh believes, is the fact Brown is entering his fourth season at Michigan and his system is in place. The younger players and those who haven’t had an opportunity to play as much don’t have to deal with a new coordinator, a new system.
That is a point several returning players have made, including end Aidan Hutchinson, who saw considerable playing time last season as a freshman. Also back is Kwity Paye, who essentially had a lengthy audition when Gary missed games last year, then there’s the proverbial Swiss Army knife Josh Uche, and graduate transfer Mike Danna. Danna, who played at Warren De La Salle, transferred from Central Michigan where he was the team’s MVP last season and MAC first team.
“Kwity Paye continues to improve as a player and had a really good season last year along with Josh Uche,” Harbaugh said. “When those two played games, they both played really well and impacted the game in a big way, in a physical way. Aidan Hutchinson was one of the three freshmen who played last year and he's looking better than ever. Mike (Danna), he’s been so good. There's a high level of athleticism, high level strength and high level desire there and high leadership level that Mike has given the football team this summer.”
What impresses Harbaugh about this group is that there are a number of starter-caliber players. Players have always rotated on the defensive line, but the quality is across the board as far as depth goes, he said, and that's an obvious positive.
“You start to see that there's guys that can play,” Harbaugh said. “There’s reinforcements. There's top line guys. Start thinking maybe that you change the way you look at a starter, you know, and how much Hutchinson is gonna play, Kwity Paye’s gonna play, Uche is gonna play, Mike Danna is going to play, and what does that really what does that really mean?
“I know, in the end, we'll do what's best for our football team. And, you know, that pass rush, being able to put pressure on the quarterback, as we said from the inside.
"But that's got a chance to also improve on the edges as well, and could very well do so this year.”