Contrary to the common perception, battles in the trenches are not won solely by brute force. Leverage, balance and hand placement are at least as important as raw power in determining the success or failure of a defensive lineman.
Luckily for Michigan Wolverines fans, Mason Graham has consummately demonstrated an understanding that technique is just as important as tenacity in the trenches, accounting for his dominant freshman campaign.
One of Michigan’s most prolific interior defensive linemen in 2022, Graham put up an impressive 27 total tackles — 14 being of the solo variety — and 2.5 sacks in his first year in the Maize and Blue. As I discussed in an earlier article about the standout freshman, his wrestling background and sheer strength have been identified as the two underlying factors to Graham’s ascendancy. It’s a small wonder why Jim Harbaugh referred to him as a “gift from the football gods.”
But let’s dive a bit deeper into the body of Graham’s work to see what made him such a force for the Wolverines so quickly.
Michigan’s first road test at Iowa was also our first glimpse at the abilities of the former championship wrestler.
2022: Michigan 27 Iowa 14 https://t.co/eQ6848Jzyw via @YouTube— Z (@Zulu0009090) January 22, 2023
On this outstanding play, notice how Graham utilized the tackle’s weight against him to shed the block. Keeping his balance and allowing the Hawkeye to over-extend his reach allowed Graham to apply enough outside leverage to force his opponent to fall forward, giving him a straight shot at the quarterback. As Joel Klatt noted, this is known as the push-pull technique, and it has plenty of corollaries in wrestling and martial arts.
Graham would have a great middle part of the season, but it was his effort against Illinois at the end of the season that practically doubled as a highlight reel. These two plays in the clip below also highlight his outstanding block-shedding abilities.
2022 Michigan Football Highlights v Illinois https://t.co/PCQEmEkktz via @YouTube— Z (@Zulu0009090) January 22, 2023
Astutely pointed out by Todd Blackledge, Graham’s quickness and finesse — abilities he honed on the mat as a championship wrestler — allowed him to spring off the blocks and fly into the Illini backfield on both of these tackles for loss. Such acumen was at the center of Graham’s success and ability to live rent-free in the backfields of the Big Ten.
But it also doesn’t hurt to have pure a pure pass-rush instinct, as he exhibited in these two plays against Nebraska.
2022 Michigan Football Highlights vs. Nebraska https://t.co/iIZgPnbr5e via @YouTube— Z (@Zulu0009090) January 21, 2023
2022 Michigan Football Highlights vs. Nebraska https://t.co/GcLls6d7zW via @YouTube— Z (@Zulu0009090) January 21, 2023
Graham simply outmuscled and out-willed the blockers on his way to the quarterback, and it was a sight to behold. More plays like these are in the offing if he can continue getting faster and stronger.
The ease with which Graham has applied his wrestling knowledge and abilities to football is indicative of his high IQ, and the highlights exhibited above will only be the proverbial opening stanza of a dominant collegiate career. His intelligence will allow for exponential growth as he gets more playing time and matures.
He might only be a sophomore now, but I’ve got my money on him to be the next NFL first-round defensive lineman to come out of the winningest program in college football history.