The Michigan Wolverines are going through a massive scheme change on the defensive side of the ball this offseason, but its success may ultimately lie in the trenches. Michigan has struggled on the interior of its defensive line over the last few seasons, but hope springs eternal in the form of junior tackle Mazi Smith.
Smith has not had a big role over his first two seasons in Ann Arbor, but projects to be a name that takes a step forward this year. Let’s take a look at his career so far and what he might bring this season.
The story so far
Smith is a Michigan native having gone to high school at East Kentwood in Grand Rapids. He was a four-star prospect and the No. 105 player in the country during the 2019 recruiting cycle, according to the 247Sports Composite.
Smith played in two games during his true freshman season in 2019 and spent the year on the scout team. He made his debut in a game at Maryland on Nov. 2 and was able to get into the Citrus Bowl game against Alabama on Jan. 1.
He finally was able to add some statistics to his name in 2020, appearing in five of six games for Michigan. He finished the season with three tackles and a tackle for loss in what was an otherwise underwhelming season for the defense. Smith made the academic All-Big Ten team in 2020.
Outlook for 2021
Michigan has had a need on the interior of the defensive line for much of the last few seasons. To some, this has made Smith’s lack of a true breakout at this stage disappointing. Smith was a powerful force during his time in high school, but still raw and his technique needed to be worked on. Still, the upside has always been there and in year three we have to see him put it together.
Defensive line coach Shaun Nua is back despite a lack of development from the defensive tackles under his watch. Both he and Smith have to find ways to unlock that next gear because Michigan needs all the help it can get on the inside. The scheme change probably puts the Wolverines in 3-man fronts as a base look and given his size/profile, Smith could be a natural fit as a nose tackle in this system.
It takes time for linemen to develop on both sides of the ball. The toll it takes is physically taxing and there has to be body development and technique refinements made. That’s why it would be premature to write a player like Smith off, but it has to happen for him this year.
It seems likely he and Donovan Jeter will battle it out for the starting nose tackle gig. Jeter has been another player that has shown promise but never quite put it together consistently at Michigan. The light has to flip on for one of these players in 2021 and Smith has as good a chance as any to be a breakout player on the defensive line.