ANN ARBOR, Mich. — He was named college football’s most athletic “freak.” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz playfully liked his frame to that of a refrigerator.
Five games into his senior year, Mazi Smith is garnering praise from those around him and Michigan’s opponents, who have stepped up their efforts in trying to keep the defensive tackle from impacting their offensive game plan.
In Saturday’s 27-14 win over Iowa, the Hawkeyes mustered just 35 rushing yards, a figure impacted by the four sacks quarterback Spencer Petras took in the game. And while Smith and his 6-foot-3, 337-frame were light in the box score (2 tackles, 1 hurry), he believes his impact on the game is better quantified by what happens around him.
“I got a good amount of attention last year,” said Smith, who tallied 37 tackles (2 1/2 for a loss) in 14 starts in 2021. “That’s kind of what the nose is supposed to do. If the nose not doing his job, then nine times out of 10 the rest of the line ain’t going to be able to do their job.
“It’s like we’re all working together — we’re all feeding off each other.”
Smith has played more than 200 snaps so far this season, third-most among all Michigan defenders, according to scouting service Pro Football Focus, a sure-fire sign of the confidence the team’s coaching staff has in the Grand Rapids native. His size and ability, both to defend the run and rush the quarterback, has him often double-teamed by opposing offensive lines. And while that may not be ideal for his own personal stat line, Smith also recognizes that football can be a game of chess.
Two players assigned to him means there’s one less player to worry about, potentially leaving open a rush lane or whole for one of Michigan’s many pass-rushers.
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“If they are not going to be doubling me, they are going to be doubling someone else. I’d rather be the one getting doubled,” Smith said. “”I remember when I first got here, Don Brown was still here and the one thing he said was, ‘You can’t have a good defense without a nose. You see it in the league — everybody needs a nose.’ I think it’s an important position.”
The attention paid to Smith paid off Saturday in the victory over Iowa, with Michigan tallying four sacks from different players, three of whom edge rushers at key moments. End Mike Morris, whom Smith refers to as a “dangerous guy” for his versatility and explosive nature, had two, fellow tackle Mason Graham got one, and ends Taylor Upshaw and Eyabi Okie combined for another.
“He’s a guy that people have circled — especially in the run-game,” first-year defensive coordinator Jesse Minter says. “He’s got strength. He’s an immovable object at times. So, I think for him, he’s just continuing to play within the framework of the defense and know that, at times, he sets things up for people to make plays.”
Minter’s comments came last month, before Michigan began Big Ten play and increased its level of competition. Smith hadn’t played nearly the number of snaps he was accused of, all because the Wolverines had routed their first three non-conference foes and tooled around at length with reserves. Minter acknowledged the need to keep Smith, a former four-star recruit from Grand Rapids, “fresh and ready to go” for conference play.
In the opener against Maryland, Smith was incredibly effective—registering five tackles, three pressures and two hits to score near-perfect grades from PFF, the scouting service. It was a completely different story against Iowa, which completely erased Smith from making any sort of impact in the run game. Ferentz and his staff had clearly game-planned for Smith, an honorable mention all-Big Ten pick in 2021.
“They couldn’t get nothin’ goin’ with the run, you know?,” Smith said. Turns out, there was a reason for it.
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