The Michigan starting defensive linemen spoke about it before the season, that they no longer wanted to be looked at as “the backups.”
But that’s what they were last season to a group of NFL players: Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow and Matt Godin. And while the backups rotated in plenty and secured considerable playing time, they were still the backups.
Until this season.
It has taken time, but tackle Maurice Hurst and ends Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary have finally shaken off that old moniker and lead the Wolverines’ defense that is ranked No. 1 nationally, picking up where the starters left off last year.
Michigan is coming off a 14-10 loss to Michigan State last Saturday and travels to Indiana this weekend. The Wolverines are the No. 1 overall defense, second in passing yards allowed (126.0), sixth in rush defense (87.0) and seventh in scoring (13.6). They have not allowed a fourth-quarter point.
Winovich is third overall on the team in tackles with 33, including 5.5 sacks. Hurst is fourth with 26 tackles, and 5.5 for loss, and Gary is sixth with 24 tackles, including 2.5 for loss.
“The first unit, that was the seconds before, honestly, we talk about that all the time,” defensive line coach Greg Mattison said Wednesday before practice. “We’ve got something to prove. We want to make sure that each game this group shows that they were a big reason for a really good D-line last year. That they weren’t just guys that went in. It’s their turn now.
“That’s why each week you’ll see them work to improve. They want to finish this thing this year as being what is expected here to be a great D-line.”
Mattison likes to consider the line as, essentially, two first-team units. This year’s backups are gaining experience, as this starting group was a year ago.
“I feel like we’re really starting to get with the D-line like we had before with the two deep,” Mattison said. “They’ve worked hard in practice. The only thing you can judge by is practice. (Defensive coordinator Don) Brown does a great job of rotating them in practice like we do in a game. They’re starting to become that two-deep group like I want them to.
“I think over the last week and a half I saw more improvement out of that group than I have in the first three weeks. They’re working toward that now.”
By no means is the starting group without flaws despite its national ranking.
The Wolverines were frustrated about allowing 14 points to Michigan State, including a 50-yard gain. It has been a second-half adjustment team and made life difficult for offenses, but those were points they can’t allow with an offense that is struggling.
Brown told the players this week that he expects more from them.
“He was saying we have yet to play our perfect game,” Gary said this week. “As a defense, we have been playing all right, but you know, we have to step it up. Mistakes were made and (Michigan State) capitalized on them.
We got to cut down on the mistakes and play defense like we know how to play defense. We’re just thinking too much. After that talk (with Brown), we’re back doing what we’ve been doing — that’s just playing football (and) making plays.”
Gary said Michigan’s defense is not dwelling on the Michigan State game but looking toward Indiana.
“As a defense we have to improve on having less mistakes,” he said. “That’s our mindset. What happened last week, that’s what happened. We got to move forward. We’re only focused on Indiana.”
There have been plenty of positives to go around on defense, and Mattison was happy to share those on Wednesday.
He praised Hurst for his performance against Michigan State. He had eight tackles, including 2.5 for loss.
“As a senior you want in big games to play your best, and he’s been practicing that way to do that,” Mattison said. “I’m happy for him. He’s capable of doing that a lot this year, he’s very explosive. He’s been a good leader and he’s worked very hard. The guys look up to him and you want guys like that to have the reward of playing like that.”
Gary is constantly working on his technique, and he often studies clips of NFL players to pick up tips.
“Great things are going to happen because of that,” Mattison said.
And then there’s Winovich who sets the bar high for tireless play.
“The thing about Chase Winovich that every young man should have is he has a burning desire to be the best he can be,” Mattison said. “He always wants to be the guy, and that’s what you want from your defensive line.
“He always puts the defense ahead of his own personal goals. If every player prepared and played as hard as Chase, you’d have one of the greatest defensive lines you could ever have.”