The Big Ten is built on hard-nosed football, running the ball and winning in the trenches. For the second season in a row, the Michigan Wolverines were crowned champions of the conference because they excelled in each of those categories. Much of the thanks on defense comes from the interior defensive line, arguably the most dominant unit on the field for the Wolverines.
Retrospectively, look what this defense — with much credit going to the line — did to some of the Big Ten programs. Iowa ran for just 35 yards, Indiana had only 19, Michigan State had 37 yards on 23 attempts, Rutgers only picked up 13. When you are posting those kinds of numbers, you are going to be causing chaos in a conference that relies on rushing production.
It came as a bit of a surprise because three defensive linemen were elite for Michigan. One was obvious, senior Mazi Smith, who earned a lot of praise in the preseason as potentially being the best defensive lineman in the Big Ten and in the country. He lived up to those expectations, plugging holes all season long and racking up 49 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. That’s why he was named a consensus first team All-Big Ten honoree. Plays like this are what make him so special.
Mazi Smith lateral mobility pic.twitter.com/WJf14fm0kK— Tyler Browning (@DiabeticTyler) January 13, 2023
Smith forced a fumble in the final seconds of the third quarter against TCU in the College Football Playoff, which put Michigan in a spot to make it a game in the fourth quarter. We saw plenty of big plays from Smith in his career in Ann Arbor, and he is going to be missed in 2023.
Then, we saw vast improvement from Kris Jenkins, who had a really impressive redshirt freshman season in 2021. He was arguably as good as Smith with 54 tackles (fifth on the team), and two sacks. With a lot of attention on Smith, Jenkins won a lot of battles in the trenches. Most notable was his five tackles in the win at Ohio State. His growth in 2022 was key to Michigan’s success, and his return in 2023 is its chance to keep the dominance rolling.
What rounded up the trio on the defensive line, though, was true freshman Mason Graham. Many expected him to be behind Rayshaun Benny, but he instead jumped him on the depth chart before the season even began.
He became a staple and could be a superstar on the interior for another two years. He had 27 tackles and 2.5 sacks. We heard his name called a lot on the broadcast because of it.
Then a rotation of Benny, Kenneth Grant and Cam Goode provided a strong rotation behind the three starters in the base package. Michigan was blessed with a group that held opponents to less than 100 rushing yards per game and finished top-five nationally in rush defense. With most of these players returning in 2023, the odds that Michigan repeats this success is rather high.