Michigan football DT Mazi Smith emerging as leader on defensive front

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — This offseason, all we’ve heard about the Michigan football defense is that it will suffer greatly with Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo no longer there to rush the passer. What’s more, Hutchinson’s leadership will be missed.

Parts of that are certainly true, but what if someone else stepped up this fall?

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From one account, enter Mazi Smith. Entering his fourth year with the program, Smith was one of the four players selected to represent the Wolverines in Indianapolis — a sign that he’s established himself as a leader, at least in the eyes of head coach Jim Harbaugh. The interior defensive lineman lost his counterpart in Christopher Hinton to the NFL as well, so, as his fellow defensive lineman Mike Morris tells it, Smith is evangelizing to the rest of the defensive front that Harbaugh’s notion of it being a ‘no-star defense’ ‘ can really pay dividends once the season arrives.

“I feel like this is a Mazi Smith — I’m quoting Mazi Smith: Mazi wants us to be a more cohesive unit,” Morris said. “So there’s no defense running through just a couple of guys. It’s 11 men on the field, getting the passer, rushing. It’s 11 people working in a cohesive unit to be the best defense that it can be.”

As Morris tells it, this isn’t unusual for Smith to be outspoken this offseason. It’s something of a contrast to last year, when he was cited by his teammates as being a less vocal leader and more of a ‘lead-by-example’ type.

However, all of that has changed, and he’s pushing the players around him, especially those who will be rushing the passer this fall, to really dig in and be their best.

Like Morris said, ‘A more cohesive unit.’

“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,” Morris said. “Because he says — and I quote Mazi — he says four pass rushers are better than two pass rushers. So with him, Kris Jenkins, me, (Taylor Upshaw), Braiden, Jaylen Harrell and a couple other guys, we can work together as one unit instead of individuals.”

In terms of how the defensive front is becoming more cohesive, Morris says that it’s not new defensive line coach Mike Elston, it’s not defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, it’s not familiarity with the system. While all of the above might play a part, the true galvanizing force is — you guessed it, Mazi Smith.

“No, it’s Mazi, again,” Morris said. “Like I said, he’s very hands-on with what we’re doing. And I’m all in for him. So whatever he wants, I’m 10 toes in.”

Michigan kicks off the 2022 season on Sept. 3, when it hosts Colorado State for the season opener at The Big House.

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