Michigan opponents find 'Salt and Pepper' tough to shake
Ann Arbor — You can’t have Batman without Robin. Or Starsky without Hutch. Or Butch Cassidy without Sundance. Or C-3PO without R2-D2.
And you can’t have Salt without Pepper.
At Michigan, salt and pepper season the Wolverines’ defensive line with the play of junior Kwity Paye and sophomore Aidan Hutchinson holding down the end spots. As the 19th-ranked Wolverines (5-2, 3-2 Big Ten) prepare to face eighth-ranked Notre Dame (5-1), those two will be expected to play major roles in the prime-time game Saturday night at Michigan Stadium.
Paye, who missed the Illinois game with an injury, leads the team with eight tackles for loss and also has 4.5 sacks. Hutchinson has six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, leads the linemen with 36 tackles, and also has two forced fumbles.
Salt and Pepper. Pepper and Salt.
“It was a name my high school coach gave me and a former player,” Paye said of his days at Bishop Hendricken in Rhode Island. “Me and Aidan kinda fit that role again. Just tried the same thing.”
Paye explained this week with a straight face the deep meaning of the nickname.
“I’m a dark complexion, and he’s white,” Paye said, drawing enormous laughter from gathered reporters. “So you need salt and pepper to eat.”
The Wolverines also need them for their disruptive natures.
“They know exactly what each other is doing, so if they flip tight ends, Aidan becomes the end and Kwity becomes the anchor, and it’s no big deal,” defensive line coach Shaun Nua said Wednesday. “They know exactly how to play on the field. They communicate. And that includes (tackles) Carlo (Kemp) and Dwumy (Mike Dwumfour) in the middle, as well.
“It’s a good group. Very, very easy job for me as a coach when you have guys that are experienced. I just got to let them play.”
The 6-foot-6, 278-pound Hutchinson out of Dearborn Divine Child has made seven career starts and made his collegiate debut in the season opener at Notre Dame last season. Paye, who is 6-4, 277, has made nine starts and earned valuable playing time last season when starting end Rashan Gary was out with a shoulder injury.
“It's great having Kwity, man,” Hutchinson said this week. “We've been working together for two years now, and I think we're both growing so much. Kwity has gotten, looking back at him last year and looking at him this year, oh my God, he's progressed so much. I think both of us are progressing and the ways that we are, it just really solidifies the salt and pepper.”
The two spend time together when they have some free time.
“We'll hang out a little bit outside of football,” Hutchinson said, smiling. “I wouldn't say we're twins or anything.”
But like twins they share an uncanny ability to work in unison without having to communicate.
“If they're going hurry up, we're a strength defense so we play to the strength,” Hutchinson said. “I go to the strong side, and when you're going hurry up everyone's gotta stay and you gotta know everything. It's good to have that connection with Kwity, and we're kind of always on the same page with those things, when to stay and when not to stay.”
Defensive coordinator Don Brown is grateful Paye and Hutchinson made such a smooth transition as the starting ends, taking over for Gary and Chase Winovich, both now in the NFL.
“Here’s my Aidan Hutchinson story, OK,” Brown said recently. “I’m looking at this guy and I’m going, ‘He’s gonna be a little stiff,' and he’s gonna be this, and he’s gonna be that. He’s just so big. He does not have one ounce of stiffness. He’s very flexible. Extremely strong but is an elite athlete. I can’t think of anybody his size that I think is more flexible than he is. He’s unbelievable.
“Kwity has come a long way from (the Boston College) camp when he was a freshman at about 217 pounds. I said it just recently, and we were talking about defending the spread run, the quarterbacks runs, the pulls, all the stuff we see in college football — he is the best spread run defender I’ve ever seen. Why do I say that? Because you can’t fool him. We’re blessed here with these two guys and this Mike Danna is a close second.”
Nua, in his first season as defensive line coach, appreciates the confidence with which Paye plays.
(He) just doesn’t panic with all the RPOs and all the bluff,” Nua said. “He knows exactly when they’re trying to kick him out and when they’re not trying to kick him out. He’s always in his gaps with great pad level and hands inside.
“You hardly ever see him on the ground, and then when he gets a pass rush he can convert fast.”
Hutchinson has become a “complete player” according to Nua, who echoed Brown's comments that he's a big guy who can run.
“He’s always around the quarterback when it’s a pass down or a pass rush. sometimes a ball comes out early, but I tell him that’s no excuse, we still can get there,” Nua said. “He’s improved a lot, because he’s so hard on himself."
Since his debut at Notre Dame in 2018, as the Wolverines prepare to face the Irish for the last time for the foreseeable future, Hutchinson has improved dramatically.
“I'm getting so much better every week, it's really cool to see this progression,” Hutchinson said. “My pass rush is getting a lot better, my overall recognition of the game, every single area of my game if you watch the film, I'm taking steps up the ladder every single game. So it's really fun to watch, and I'm just excited to play Notre Dame.”
Hutchinson said he was nervous last year when he started at Notre Dame Stadium.
“I'm not that nervous this year,” he said. “I'm ready to attack them and jut get a win.”
That’s the Wolverines’ plan with a lot of salt and pepper mixed in.