(The first time through this intro series we missed a couple players. Nathan Brink was one of them. Here is his profile.)
Last year at this time you would be excused for not knowing who Nathan Brink was. When talking about the defensive end competition in Michigan's fall camp there were certainly a lot of more well-known names to throw around. Craig Roh, Jibreel Black, Ken Wilkins, Ryan Van Bergen, etc.
Still, a few days into fall camp something funny started to happen: people started to talk about some undersized walk-on named Brink.
Brink wasn't the biggest player on the roster, nor the strongest. In fact, at 6'5 267lbs as a RS Soph he was still undersized, despite putting on 17lbs over the previous off season. Still, Brink made up for this with a superior work ethic and a fantastic motor -- the two things that tend to stand out in pre-season camp settings. Mattison on Brink early last August:
"He shows that want-to, that toughness, and that's what we want. What we need is 11 guys playing with the attitude he's shown."
This served Brink well as he continued to get time with the first team during the rest of the fall, and even began to garner hype as a potential starter. It was a strange time for the defensive line as Ryan Van Bergen was shifting inside to 3-tech tackle because of an utter lack of options there, Craig Roh was recovering from an illness that hurt his production, and Will Heininger had yet to establish himself as a starter.
All of that plus the narrative. While Brink fought his way into contention for a starting spot because of hard work and a never quit attitude, Will Campbell languished behind Mike Martin on the second team and still struggled with inconsistency. Five-star failing to break through while scrappy walk-on fights for a starting job? A sports editor's wet dream.
Unfortunately for Brink it didn't last. Will Heininger eventually laid claim to the starting job that Brink was fighting for and Brink was confined to the bench. Brink appeared in 11 games, and started vs. Purdue, but an injury late in the season knocked him out of the Sugar Bowl and contributed to the eventual ironman performance that Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen put on as literally the only guys who could play on the inside.
The one knock on Brink last fall was his size. He didn't have the athleticism and pass rush moves to play on the weak side, so he was pegged either as a 5-tech DE or a 3-tech DT. Both positions required a lot more size and strength than Brink was able to provide at just 267lbs. Hard work and attitude are important, but those two spots routinely see double blocking, and it isn't easy to hold up against that unless you are A) big enough to handle it or B) flawless in your technique. Brink was neither.
The good news is that Brink has added some more weight, topping out this year at 272lbs. This still isn't big, but it could be big enough -- especially considering that the rest of depth chart at 3- and 5-tech is undersized.
Craig Roh is the starter at the 5-tech and should be the anchor of the Wolverine defensive line, while Jibreel Black has slid inside at 3-tech. However, Brink's fight for playing time at the 5-tech should be primarily with the unknown entity that is Keith Heitzman who was only 251lbs last year and didn't weigh in for the annual mgoblog roster overanalysis. Brink is most likely even with or ahead of Heitzman in terms of size and strength, which should help open up his path to playing time. On top of this, the coaches still like his work ethic and heap praise on him.
We don't know exactly what Brink will play like this year with the added weight and another year in the system as he missed the bowl game and all of spring practice. Still, with depth as it stands on the defensive line right now, it would be hard to imagine anyone stepping in front of Brink on the second team.
Last year people may have panicked at the thought of an undersized walk-on winning a starting job, but this year there are worse things than having a hard working backup who just happens to be a slightly less undersized walk-on.