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The 2021 Michigan defensive line’s dominant season began with a promise of development one year ago today

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Mike Macdonald empowered his lone returning assistant and star player to orchestrate a season of dominance.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 13 Michigan at Penn State Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One year ago today, Mike Macdonald was appointed as the next defensive coordinator at the University of Michigan. Macodnald took over a unit that only retained one defensive assistant from 2020 (defensive line coach Shaun Nua) and was in need of a complete overhaul. In his introductory statement, Macdonald placed heavy emphasis on development.

“It is an honor to join Coach Harbaugh’s staff at the University of Michigan. I firmly believe in his vision and am excited to get to work. Our staff will work tirelessly to develop our young men both on and off the field — I cannot wait to meet and develop relationships with our players, staff, and community! Stephanie and I are excited to join the Michigan family, and we are very thankful for this opportunity — Go Blue!”

It is no surprise that this was his focus when taking over a struggling unit with identity issues and it’s star player coming off a season-ending injury. With assistance from Nua, his first step to reinventing and repairing the defense was a front end schematic change and implementing a 3-4 base defense with a three-man defensive line.

Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith were tasked with handling the interior while Michigan team captain Aidan Hutchinson was the outside pass rusher. Macdonald would also bring a linebacker to the opposite end of the line (frequently David Ojabo or Jaylen Harrell) to complement Hutchinson’s pass rush.

Besides schematic changes, Macdonald also took Aidan Hutchinson out of a three-point stance and had him stand up like a linebacker. This stance change allowed Hutchinson to see and communicate better with teammates. Most importantly, it maximized his talents as a football player and positioned Hutchinson for the best season ever by a Michigan pass rusher.

Hutchinson set the single season sack record at Michigan with 14, tallied for 16 tackles-for-loss, and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Like Michigan greats before him, Hutch set aside his best play for the biggest moments. His three-sack performance in a victory over Ohio State places his name in revered Michigan air with the likes of Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson.

Aidan Hutchinson is a Mount Rushmore Michigan Wolverine and will likely be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. However, a season like this does not happen singularly or without often unseen contributions .

If Hinton and Smith on the interior do not clog up running lanes and command the respect of double teams, Hutchinson’s historical season does not happen. While the defensive tackles only combined for 3.5 sacks and one tackle-for-loss, their excellence was echoed in every Hutchinson and Ojabo sack.

These echoes were loud enough for Smith and Hinton to both be recognized as All-Big Ten Honorable Mention selections by the coaches and media. Hinton is joining Hutchinson and heading to the NFL, while Smith is returning to Ann Arbor.

Joining Mazi Smith next season, will be a combination of Mike Morris, Jess Speight, Braiden McGregor, Kris Jenkins, Julius Welschof, and Taylor Upshaw, all of whom contributed in 2021. This group will attempt to mitigate the void created by the loss of Hutchinson and Hinton, and key reserve veteran Donovan Jeter who also departs.

While sustaining excellence has overtaken developing excellence one year later, Macdonald and new defensive line coach Mike Elston will have their work cut out for them with the standard they set in 2021.