Earlier this week on the In The Trenches podcast, Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh expressed confidence that despite his defense’s “no-star” composition, 2022 looked to be potentially even better than the star-studded lineup of last year’s defense.
In talking with both players and coordinators this week, the common thread has appeared to emerge as to why — communication, and lots of it.
“We’ll be in walkthroughs and they’re just screaming at each other, just overly communicating,” tight end Luke Schoonmaker said Tuesday. “Everybody, linebackers, secondary, everybody. You can just tell from that, they’re all bought into it. That group just meshes so well together.”
While the defense last year was by no means a down year — finished eighth in scoring and 20th in total defense — switching from the wildly different philosophies of “Dr. Blitz” Don Brown to Mike Macdonald carried with it some obvious learning curves.
This year, while the Wolverines again have a new defensive coordinator in Jesse Minter, the philosophy and scheme has carried over almost seamlessly, opening up a wealth of knowledge the team didn’t have entering 2021.
“One of the pillars of our defense is obnoxious communication,” Minter said Thursday. “Our group has bought into that being a foundation. I think they started to do that, but I think as they continue in a second year and have a lot of carryover, it allows them to do that with a lot of confidence. The more confidence you have, the louder you communicate.”
That increase in communication, Minter said, is keeping anxieties over replacing stars like Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo to a minimum.
“One of the things we’ve talked about is we’re not worried about replacing whoever,” Minter said. “We want to have the best 11 players on the field for any situation, and that’s occurring.”
Leading the charge for Michigan, both from a physicality and a mentality standpoint, has been defensive lineman Mazi Smith. While Smith has received national attention this week for his explosive tangibles, both coaches and teammates have given particular attention to his leadership both on and off the field.
“Mazi, you guys have met Mazi, he’s not that vocal all the time,” co-defensive coordinator Steve Clinkscale said Thursday. “But the thing is when Mazi speaks, everybody listens. He has this way of things where he pulls everybody in. Sometimes loud on the field signals confidence, but Mazi is one of those guys where when you sit there and listen to him talk, he knows what we’re doing in the backfield sometimes too.”
So clear is Smith’s impact on the defense, particularly those on the defensive line, that teammates have begun quoting him in availabilities.
“Mazi wants us to be a more cohesive unit,” defensive end Mike Morris said on Tuesday. “That is a Mazi Smith quote. I have to quote him. He’s been very hands on with the whole unit, because we’ve been separated in the past and he wants us to be one unit so we can rush the passer better. He says — and I quote Mazi Smith — he says ‘four pass rushers is better than two pass rushers.’ We can work together as one unit instead of individuals.”
With the first week of the season creeping ever closer, the defense looks to be shaping up as one to beat in the Big Ten, in no small part due to the team’s familiarity with each other.