The defensive tackle position left a bit to be desired last season with the Michigan Wolverines, whether it be because of injuries, a lack of size and production, or any combination of factors. Fans and pundits have circled it as a question heading into the season, but it seems the coaching staff feels good about the promise of the group.
Defensive line coach Shaun Nua spoke to the media on Wednesday and ran through some of the names that make up the position group. One of the biggest topics of conversation was the development of fourth-year player Donovan Jeter, who has consistently been named as a breakout player in camp.
“Jeter finally got into the...that comes with a lot of experience and just time...young men finally realizing, ‘I can do this. I can do this on a consistent basis,’” Nua said. “His mindset is part of the thing that’s changed in everything he does. Off the field, on field, with his teammates. Once that happens, everything seems to fall into place. He’s literally took his mindset into a place where it’s helping him produce at a very, very high level. And especially on a consistent basis. He’s in a very good place.”
It feels like we have been waiting to see Jeter bust through for a few seasons now and Nua notes that sometimes, it might just be a case of being fed up with waiting as a spark to better his situation.
“We tend to not understand how fragile and how very, very limited the opportunities are,” Nua said. “He’s probably just sick and tired of not breaking through. It’s a combination of all of that. He’s finally realizing, ‘What the heck am I waiting for?’ There’s a lot of talks, we’ve had a lot of discussions about it and he’s finally seeing the light. Just hoping he’ll stay strong and have a good feeling it is. Once you realize your opportunities are very, very limited, either you fight back or you don’t – and he’s decided to fight back.”
Locked in a battle with Jeter for the spot next to Carlo Kemp at defensive tackle is sophomore Chris Hinton, the former five-star recruit that we only got a taste of in 2019. He and Mazi Smith were two players that fans wanted to see more of, but it never totally came to fruition last season.
“Hinton’s limited experience last year is definitely helping him,” Nua said. “Now he’s not playing like a sophomore. His footwork is a lot faster now. His knowledge and understanding of the game – even though it was at a good place is now at a better place, anticipating stuff. Those are the guys inside – Jeter, Carlo, Hinton, Julius Welschof, Mazi Smith is coming along, along with Jess Speight, Phillip Paea. They’re all doing good.
“The younger guys, especially Mazi Smith – I see the progress more than he does. It’s good and bad. It’s good that I see the progress that he’s – he wants to arrive already, but it’s a good problem to have from his point of view. He’s a competitive young man that has completely changed his body frame, and now he’s at a level where he’s really, really close to having that breakout experience right now. I feel really good with our inside guys. They’re fighting – it’s gonna be some good battles.”
Welschof, who stands at 6-foot-6, 286 points and growing, is another interior defensive lineman that we have heard a ton about from coaches and players since Michigan resumed preparations for a 2020 football season. The German product appears to be putting all of the pieces together.
“Julius Welschof is just experienced – the game of football wasn’t instilled in him at a young age,” Nua said. “The things he needed was a lot of repetition and the COVID time off, it was probably useful for him, especially to get into the playbooks and study. And then the next thing, the next step, was to get a feel for how to play the game to get his football instincts intact.”
If we take Nua’s words at face value mixed with what else players and coaches have been saying publicly over the last number of weeks, it appears that Jeter and Hinton are the two locked into the battle for the most snaps next to Kemp up front. From there Welschof factors in with Jess Speight to bring things to five-deep between the two spots. Mazi Smith and Philip Paea will continue to fight for time, but it seems they both might just be a rung below. If either of them turn it on at any point, then there certainly could be some quality depth here moving forward.