INDIANAPOLIS — The previous offseason (and the one before that), Donovan Jeter was the Michigan football interior defensive lineman who drew the most praise, with coaches and players forecasting a breakout season.
There’s a different interior defensive lineman who is drawing attention: redshirt sophomore Mazi Smith.
“A guy like Mazi Smith has really asserted himself through spring ball and the summer cycle,” said coach Jim Harbaugh on Thursday at Big Ten media days. “Mazi looks good.”
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Notably, those comments were not in response to a specific question about Smith. Instead, Harbaugh was responding to a question about why the Wolverines pursued (and landed) graduate transfer defensive lineman Jordan Whitley (Oregon State).
Michigan’s Mazi Smith (58) takes the field for the spring game Saturday, April 13, 2019 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
Harbaugh explained that although Michigan has “a lot of really talented players” on defense, the team is “maybe a little undersized in the middle.”
“(Whitley’s) a big guy,” Harbaugh said of the 6-foot-1, 358-pound nose guard. “That’s a big man. As we’re going to be a multiple front defense, there will be times we’ll be odd, there will be times we’ll be under, there will be times we’ll be over, the times you’re odd, you’ve got a big guy right over the center that can two-gap. We’re hopeful.”
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Then Harbaugh’s attention turned toward Smith — a player with the size and pedigree to potentially help the Wolverines with their problems in the middle.
The former four-star recruit has yet to receive extensive playing time at U-M, despite a lack of depth and production from the interior of the defensive line during both of Smith’s first two seasons; in 2019, he appeared in two games, while in 2020, he played in five games and tallied three tackles, one for loss.
According to Harbaugh, Smith has changed his body composition.
“Mazi, first of all, he’s completely changed his body to a power-pack,” Harbaugh said. “Big, wide, thick, strong and retained his speed and athleticism. His strike, his knock-back. Real desire that he has always shown since Day 1. He keeps getting better every day, getting stronger every day.”
U-M lost Carlo Kemp (who was moved from defensive tackle to defensive end last season after injuries mounted), but the return numerous others along the interior, including Jeter (a fifth-year senior), Chris Hinton and Jess Speight.
“These guys walk in and you’re like, ‘Man, they’re big,’ ” Harbaugh said. “Chris Hinton, Jess Speight, there’s some good guys.”
Whitley, Harbaugh said, will have to climb past Smith, Hinton and Speight on the depth chart. And there will also be opportunities for true freshmen to make the depth chart when fall camp begins Aug. 6.
“Three young inside players, Ike (Iwunnah), Rayshaun (Benny) and George (Rooks) will come onto the scene on Aug. 6 and we’ll see what they can do,” Harbaugh said. “Hopefully those three are going to keep an eye on Mazi Smith and see how he goes about his business.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Michigan football’s Mazi Smith may be ready to fill void