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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — While this year’s edition of the Michigan football vs. Wisconsin game is focused more on how the Wolverines’ run game will fare against the No. 1 run defense in the country, the annual battle between the Badgers and the maize and blue tends to center on the UW run game.
This year, Michigan will see a heavy dose of Chez Mellusi, the Clemson transfer, and it will be up to the defensive line to be the first line of defense. Additionally, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz has been a turnover machine, so if the Wolverines can get pressure, that can continue, despite Michigan only having two turnovers through four games.
On Wednesday, Michigan defensive line coach Shaun Nua met with the media to discuss the state of the Wolverines defensive line. Here is everything he had to say about his unit and the Badgers.
What are they doing to simulate the crowd?
“Well, defensively, we’re not doing anything for the crowd, you know? It’s gonna be the opposite side. It’s what everybody does: get the speakers out there, make it as loud as possible and we all understand and know what kind of environment we’re going into and we’re excited and looking forward to it.”
What he's seen from the interior defensive line from Week 1 to 4
“They’re still a great team. They’re still Wisconsin. They’ve done a great job of developing the identity over the years and you still see that on film. Don’t look at the record or the past few games that they’ve had; they’re still Wisconsin and we’re taking this very, very seriously.”
What he’s seen from the interior DL from Weeks 1-4
“Yeah, Mazi Smith, Chris Hinton – they’ve done a great job of just being hard on themselves with the demand and attention that we put on them. They’ve done a great job of responding each week, learning from the past games, the mistakes. And also to handle – we throw a lot of stuff at them. They have to know a lot of stuff. You see them lining up in different positions. They’ve improved very well, especially learning how to prepare. They’ve done a great job of that.”
Are they focusing more on turnovers vs. Wisconsin?
“Every week we focus on that. That’s a high point of emphasis in the defense – we want more turnovers. We try to emphasize stripping the ball, intercepting the ball, strip sacks. We try to train all of that stuff, because it’s every game. Just because they’re vulnerable at that doesn’t mean – yeah, we hope they turn the ball over every freaking series! But we’re gonna focus on us causing those turnovers, so it’s a point of emphasis every week.”
Was Jordan Whittley injured last week?
“Against Rutgers, he had just a little boo boo, but he’s good! He’s back.”
What has he seen from Whittley since he came to Michigan?
“If he can stay healthy, he has what we really want, just the pure mass and strength inside. That’s what we see from him.”
What has he seen from the true freshmen so far?
“Those guys are awesome. Rooks, Benny, Ike, Dominick Giudice – they’re doing a great job learning from the older guys and just learning the new defense. They’re doing a great job of accepting their role, they do a great job at practice. We see a lot of progress in them. They’re getting better and better each week.”
Is this game a measuring stick for the defensive line?
“Heck yeah, man! It’s freaking Wisconsin! They like to run the ball, they like to put heavy people, big people in there. We’re looking forward to that. It’s gonna be a great battle. We’re definitely looking forward to it.”
Is this scheme built for big, physical players?
“I’m not a big believer in what scheme is good for this or that, everything is a mindset to me. You go into a game it’s whatever scheme you have, if you have the right mindset, it should match and fit everything you do. But yes, we love what we’re doing that fits what they do.”
What usually tilts the balance between a good run offense and good run defense?
“Who takes care of the ball on their side, but we focus on what we do. Their defense is up, they go three and out, we gotta go three and out. It’s a battle of almost what defenses are gonna do, as it should be every time. We’re very excited for that matchup. Yeah, we can’t wait.”
Are they thinking back to the last two matchups?
“It hurts, especially I’ve been here the last few times we’ve played them and it hasn’t been a great outcome. There’s higher motivation to see where we are as a unit. For me personally, yes, that’s great motivation.”
On the communication suffering when Josh Ross left vs. Rutgers with injury
“Yeah, it filters through the defensive line, the guys in the back even, even the linebackers. We’ve gotta do a good job of helping our guys communicate at all three levels. When Ross went out, our leader, it was like, oh shoot, he was the only one talking out there. Yeah, communication is a huge part of this game and we’re fixing that.”
What was the next step from Aidan Hutchinson? Is that what we're seeing from him now?
“Yes, and he wants more.”
What else is out there for him?
“I think Aidan just wants more production and he’s getting it. And that’s exactly what he’s doing and he’s working his butt off to get both mentally and physical step on the game and he’s doing a great job.”
What are the nuances of getting him more production?
“You put him in a position where can just go dominate. Usually, who’s the weak link? But Aidan’s such a great player, shoot, he can dominate from wherever we put him.”
What can recruits do to get on Michigan's radar?
“Play hard every freaking night. Whether that’s Friday night or Thursday night, whenever they play. They’ve gotta show that they belong on the big stage. Also, we’re Michigan, so they’ve gotta do good in school as well. But, we watch film a lot on recruits, so hopefully, they’ll play hard.”
Is there a method to the defensive line rotation?
“Hmm, the method. Depending on the packages, different packages, depending on the situations — early downs, long downs, who’s hot, who’s not. I guess that’s a method, right? Yeah. By feel, positions, by package, and personnel. If the offense is gonna go big, you want to go big. If they go with speed, you want to match it up with some speed, too.”
On preparing for the number of plays and fatigue
“You don’t go into a game thinking, ‘Oh, I hope we play this amount a game.’ You’ve gotta prepare to play 100, 120, 150 plays a game. I don’t even know how many plays we — it might be 50, it might be 100. But you want to make sure you prepare your guys to play that amount. It’s a team thing, man — special teams, offense, defense. If they play well, those numbers will be where they are.”
What does he like about Christopher Hinton?
“He’s just sound, he’s aggressive. Very, very reliable, trustworthy. Those are the things that will make a coach leave players in, as long as possible.”
On the interior pass rush
“Always can get better. Can always get better. Can always get better. But that team we just played last week, the damn quarterback draw scared the crap out of me, so we have to make sure we’re unselfish, don’t let that sucker run the draw. I think we took care of that pretty well.”
How he describes Aidan Hutchinson's play through four games?
“Someone that’s very, very hungry. Hungry for greatness, hungry to match his potential. Like I said, he’s still satisfied, still not — so are we. We’re not — but he’s relentless. He’s aggressive, smart, and it’s exactly what you want to have on your football team. Usually, when you’re the most talented player, you hardly pick up effort plays, but there were a couple plays where you just watched and he’s chasing the ball carrier all the way down the sideline and full dive towards his ankles trying to get him down. It was impressive. So, anytime you have that type of talent plus the effort, you’ve got something special there. That’s how he is.”
What has he seen from Jess Speight and Julius Welschof?
“Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of improvement. Just super proud of them. Both of them did not get a lot of reps, but the ones that they did get in with, they did a great job with. They’re playing physical, they play fast. The more they do that, the more reps they’re gonna get. Probably won’t see the 60-70 amount of reps, but they’re building their own identity and gaining a lot of trust from us to put them in the game more.”
Does Aidan's effort inspire the others, become the team standard?
“Yeah, anytime you have that, everybody’s gotta match that. And they’re doing a great job of just looking up to their captain, their leader doing that. They gotta match that and that develops a great culture of relentless effort because talent alone ain’t gonna do it — we all know that. When your captains and your leaders are doing that, we’ve got something special going.”
Why is hard for some freshmen to get on the field on defense?
“It’s the trenches. It’s tough in there! Try to correlate it to your guys’ business, when you first get in, will they publish your article? There’s a lot to learn. And especially when you’re banging with the big boys — your footwork’s gotta be, your hand’s gotta be, your pad level’s gotta be. On top of that, you’ve gotta know the plays. You might be dominant, but you’re dominating the wrong gap. It’s all gotta fit together. So it’s really, really hard for a freshman to come in and play right away. But it’s very doable, too. Yeah, it’s not easy.”
How do you keep those players engaged?
“You be truthful to them and tell them exactly where they’re at and tell them, ‘This is why you’re not playing right now.’ And not just them — everybody. Everybody that’s not playing. Just be truthful to them, tell them the truth. They’ll understand. Usually, the majority of the time, they understand. And say, ‘I gotta work on this, work on that.’ That’s how you keep them engaged, because progression is developing these young guys is very, very important in our profession. It’s crucial.”
On being on the road
“I get fired up on the road more than freaking home games sometimes! You know? Because it’s quiet and we can communicate better! You really can control the crowd. When your offense goes back out there, did you shut them up or did you fire them up? So if we can keep them out of the end zone, obviously we can keep that crowd quiet. It’s just fun on the road.”
Mazi Smith said that, too. Is that a defensive thing?
“Nah, we love our home crowd. We love the home crowd. The crowd is loud playing at home. It’s just something about going to someone else’s house and tearing it apart. It’s more fun that way.”