Ann Arbor — In Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison’s world, he obviously has a starting group, but he’s got almost-as-good-backups that he does not refer to as backups.
The concept is, he has "two" starting groups and can plug in the backups and no one notices a drop-off.
Mattison is getting to the point now, with even a freshman, Aubrey Solomon, moving into a starting role, that he is more than comfortable with rotating on the line.
“I believe we’re at eight, maybe more,” Mattison said Wednesday before practice. “Guys will keep coming. They know every day they’re evaluated, and you’re either one of those eight or you’re not.”
Michigan is preparing to face Maryland on Saturday, the first of back-to-back road games. The Wolverines were the nation’s top-rated defense before losing badly at Penn State and dipped to fifth after giving up 42 points. They are now No. 3 allowing an average of 245.3 yards a game. Michigan also is No. 3 nationally in sacks.
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Much of the Wolverines’ success can be attributed to the play of the defensive line, highlighted by Maurice Hurst, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich.
And it is those veteran players, the not-called-backups backups, who are helping prepare younger players like Solomon and freshman Kwity Paye. Mattison said the starting defensive linemen have taken “ownership” of the position group and make it a point to focus on their development during practices and games.
“They’ve got to feel so proud of being in that defense that when a guy comes off and they’re watching him — one thing you notice if you’re watching Michigan, and if you saw us in practice, it’s the same thing, a lot of people when the second unit’s out there, they’re not really paying attention,” Mattison said.
“At Michigan every play you’ll see the starter watching the younger guy, and you’ll hear him yell out, ‘Good job,’ or, ‘that’s good!’ When he comes over, they’ll tell him. They’re all into it. They want two groups or whoever is up there with the varsity, they all want them to do as well as they can do.”
During the summer, Mattison raved about the young defensive line talent he had coming in.
With Solomon he has seen daily improvement, not to mention constant nurturing and mentoring from his older teammates.
“You can see it every day,” Mattison said. “You get Bryan Mone coaching him on what he should be doing, you’ve got Mo Hurst. Guys will be watching film and you’ll hear them say, ‘That’s really good,’ or 'Step this way.’ And he’s really a great young man, a great, great young man that wants to be good.
He’s gotten the opportunity, and when he’s gone in, he’s played very well.”
Paye has gradually worked into the defense.
“Kwity Paye is just like Aubrey,” Mattison said. “He has just daily improved, and again, just before I’ll say something to him you’ll hear Rashan or you’ll hear Chase say, ‘No, you’ve got to step this way,’ or, ‘No, you’ve got to be lower here.’
“He’s the same way. He listens in meetings, has great pride. He wants to be a really good football player, so the same thing has happened with him. Every time he takes a rep, I sit there and say, ‘This guy’s gotten better.’ He gets better every day, and he’s going to be a special player.”
Three regular-season games remain, so it’s a bit early to be looking toward the future. But with Solomon cracking the starting group, the conversation has begun. Mattison is getting a feel for how the line will be shaped going forward, but for now, he’s pleased with the status of the rotation.
For anyone who thought coming in that Michigan would be too young on defense with only one returning starter, he always knew what he had. He just didn’t know how quickly they would get acclimated to the defense and the college game.
“The (freshmen) have kept doing what our guys have done before them,” Mattison said. “They’ve come in and decided that, ‘Hey, for us to be a really good defense, you’ve got to have a good D-line.’ A lot of people going into the season said, ‘Well, you’re really young there. You don’t have the depth you had there before.’
“Well, the starters have stepped it up even more, and the guys behind them have now become great depth. That really shows well for us in the future.”