Niyo: Aidan Hutchinson drives point home that Michigan's defense in capable hands

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Home isn’t far away for Aidan Hutchinson. Neither are the reminders.

And for Michigan’s sophomore defensive end, it turns out the drive to end the Wolverines’ Big Ten title drought gets refueled every time he gets in the car and heads back to Plymouth.

The son of Chris Hutchinson, a former Michigan All-American defensive lineman, wears his father’s jersey number. And ever since he can remember, his bedroom wall at home has featured a display of his dad’s Big Ten championship rings. All five of them.

“So, I’ve got to look at that every time I come home,” Aidan said, laughing. “Obviously, I want it more than anybody.”

Defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson is reminded by his father Chris' five Big Ten championship rings there is a lot to live up to playing at Michigan.

But he’s hardly alone, and as the Wolverines finally get to focus on an opponent this week, with Saturday’s season opener against Middle Tennessee State under the lights at Michigan Stadium, perhaps no position group on the roster has more to prove than the defensive line.

OK, maybe that’s a stretch. The depth at cornerback is probably a bigger concern heading into this season, especially with a projected starter in Ambry Thomas still working his way back after being diagnosed with colitis.

Still, up front, Michigan lost bookend stars to the NFL in Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, as well as experienced tackles in Bryan Mone and Lawrence Marshall. They also lost their position coach, as Greg Mattison bolted last winter for Ohio State, of all places. And aside from all that, the lack of an interior pass rush proved to be one of the Wolverines’ glaring deficiencies a year ago, a fact that Ohio State exploited rather obscenely in Columbus last November.

So, yes, this defensive line has a few questions to answer this fall. 

“But they’re a hungry group and they’ve got a lot of chips on their shoulders,” said Shaun Nua, who replaced Mattison as the line coach. “And I like it.”

There’s plenty to like if you can get past the lack of experience. Senior tackle Carlo Kemp is the only full-time returning starter, unless you include Central Michigan grad transfer Mike Danna, who'll join the rotation at defensive end.

“There’s a lot of talk about how we’re young, how we’re inexperienced,” said junior Kwity Paye, who did fill a starting role for an injured Gary, at times, last season. “So we’re just hungry to prove everybody wrong and show everybody … we won’t be the weak link on this team. There’s not gonna be a weak link on this team.”

And if that sounds like wishful thinking to some, so be it.

“All of us are starting to adopt that attitude of not caring what anyone says,” Hutchinson said. “We’re just gonna go out there and do what we do. … Obviously, we’re getting a little bit of hate on the defense. But I think we’re gonna be just fine.”

Inside issues

That’ll depend on a number of factors, but particularly the play inside, where the Wolverines would benefit greatly from a healthy dose of Michael Dwumfour this season. That wasn’t the case last year as their best interior pass rusher was slowed by a painful foot injury, and Dwumfour, who struggled as a run defender, was limited again in fall camp by another injury.

Behind Kemp and Dwumfour, the coaches have talked up the play of redshirt sophomore Donovan Jeter, and one or both of the highly-touted freshmen — Mazi Smith and Chris Hinton — could figure in the rotation as well. Same goes for junior Ben Mason, the converted fullback who’s as well-suited for a crash course at a new position as anyone.

On the edge, though, Michigan needs a breakout season from Hutchinson, and the former four-star recruit out of Dearborn Divine Child knows it. After flashing some of his potential — and playing in every game — as a freshman, Hutchinson, who only turned 19 a few weeks ago, says, “the switch kind of flipped and my mindset started changing” this spring.

He bulked up, adding about 10 pounds of muscle — Hutchinson’s listed at 6-foot-6 and 278 pounds now — and he even made a trip to Boston this summer to spend a few days learning about Tom Brady’s unique training methods with Brady’s personal trainer, Alex Guerrero. And while he’s not ready to adopt Brady’s plant-based diet just yet, Hutchinson said he learned enough about nutrition, biomechanics, injury prevention and so on, that he came away from the trip — a birthday gift that was his mother’s idea — convinced he'll "go back every year just to get an annual checkup on my body.”

That comes as no surprise to his head coach, by the way.

“He’s just so focused and dedicated,” Harbaugh said. “To be good at anything, you’ve got to be dedicated, and he is. He’s got all the physical ability, he’s got all the intangibles.”

So much so that when Nua talks about leadership, he mentions Hutchinson in the same sentence as Kemp, who was just voted a team captain. Kemp’s the “emotional and vocal leader” on the defensive line, Nua says, while Paye remains a more soft-spoken leader by example. (“He shows up every day and just works and works and works,” Nua said.)

And Hutchinson?

“Aidan is a very, very special competitor,” said Nua, who spent last season at Arizona State and six before that coaching the defensive line at Navy. “He’s very competitive. Hard on himself. So that’s why he’s gonna be a great player. … If he just keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll fill that role.”

A push from dad

Defensive coordinator Don Brown liked him enough a year ago that Hutchinson became one of only three freshmen to have his redshirt burned last season. (Receiver Ronnie Bell and kicker Jake Moody were the others.) And if you ask Brown about the sophomore now, he’ll talk not just about Hutchinson’s natural length or added bulk or his ability to shed blockers as a pass rusher. He points to his personality, too.

“He has a charismatic way about him that … I just like the guy,” Brown said.

A year ago, his veteran teammates raved about both Hutchinson’s potential. Gary said Hutchinson was better than he was as a freshman who arrived on campus as the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, while Thomas insisted, “That kid is going to be an All-American here.”

Just like his dad, who earned All-American honors as a fifth-year senior in 1992 as Michigan went undefeated (9-0-3) and made a second straight trip to the Rose Bowl. And, yes, the same dad — now an emergency room doctor at Beaumont Hospital — who also went 4-0-1 against the Buckeyes in his career.

“Every day he tells me that he’s never lost to Ohio State,” Hutchinson said, smiling. “And I envy that, I really do.”

Twitter: @john_niyo