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Mike Elston details Kenneth Grant, Mason Graham taking games to the next level

Despite a small sample size last season, Kenneth Grant and Mason Graham have exploded onto the scene in 2023, drawing huge praise from the coaching staff.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 East Carolina at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh has seen a lot of powerful defensive linemen play for the team and go on to have dominant careers in the NFL, with significant recent players like Rashan Gary, Aidan Hutchinson and Mazi Smith.

None of those guys had gained praise from their head coach the way Harbaugh spoke of sophomores Kenneth Grant and Mason Graham. At Big Ten Media Day in 2022, Harbaugh enthusiastically said he had two freshmen who were “gifts from the football gods.” Those two freshmen were Grant and Graham.

“Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant — gifts from the football gods,” Graham recollected Harbaugh telling donors at an NIL event with the Wolverine boot company. “…That’s obviously a compliment to be called that. Me and (Grant), we do a lot of work together.”

When it comes to Grant, he had limited playing time last year, but he has significantly impacted the defensive line so far in 2023, sharing Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance against ECU, and tallying 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and four tackles against UNLV.

Graham found himself in pivotal situations last season, notably making crucial fourth-down stops against Iowa and Michigan State. This season, however, he has gone up a level, working his way up to starting on the defensive line, he also shared Defensive Player of the Week honors with Grant against ECU, and forced a fumble, had five tackles and a shared sack against UNLV.

“A guy that’s made a huge jump is Mason Graham,” defensive line coach Mike Elston told the media on Wednesday. “He played a lot as a freshman, but his movements, his block destruction and his pass rush are all improved. He’s a phenomenal, phenomenal player as well.”

Obviously, Grant and Graham are very different players. Grant tends to stay on the interior defensive line, while Graham is much more versatile, playing on the outside or the inside depending on which players are in around him.

“Mason (is) a little quicker off the ball, a little more twitched up with movements,” Elston said. “I think Kenneth can get there, but that’s not his game right now. Kenneth is more inside, Mason’s a little bit wider. If they’re both in the game together, Kenneth would be on the inside and Mason on the outside. When Mason and Kris Jenkins are in together, we can move Mason inside and Kris on the outside. So there’s a lot of flexibility with Mason.”

Despite their differences, both players are a lot to handle for offensive linemen. With regards to run-stopping, Graham and Grant have the ability to get around blockers, contain the ball carrier and take them down in the backfield. In their first two games, East Carolina only ran for 103 total yards, while UNLV could only get to 61. With the departure of Mazi Smith, who was a dominant run-stopper for the Wolverines last season, Grant and Graham have filled the shoes nicely.

“(Grant) is a big guy and very powerful,” Elston said. “He is very athletic for that size. He’s got an incredible motor. You don’t see a 335-plus guy move and be able to play the amount of snaps that he can without getting tired so that’s a huge benefit for him. He’s driven, and I think that he really hasn’t even scratched the surface yet, which is a little bit scary, but he’s he’s going to be a dominant player.”

While it’s only been two games, the sophomore duo has really made a name for themselves. There is a lot of hype around the team and the front seven, but both Grant and Graham are continuing to stay level-headed and try to improve every day.

“I’d like to see a more consistent get off and things like that (from Grant), which will be better for pass rush and better for knocking people back, and he knows that that’s something that needs to work on,” Elston said. “But once that becomes consistent, he’s gonna be a wrecking ball there.”

“It’s just getting more comfortable in the scheme,” Graham said regarding how he can get better. “Knowing the defense and what we’re looking at, (recognizing) some defensive calls. Just being more comfortable with that.”

There is a long road ahead before the Wolverines reach their goals, and while they have only played non-conference competition so far, having a three-man punch in Jenkins, Grant and Graham will make any offense tremor.