Michigan’s group of tight-knit defensive linemen demonstrate character and work ethic – on and off the field
(Note: This story first appeared on Maize n Brew, the popular Michigan Wolverines sports site, in July 2017).
Rashan Gary is a beast. To be precise, he’s a once-in-a-generation, freakishly athletic beast.
Hovering near 300 lbs., Michigan’s sophomore defensive end runs the 40 in under 4.6 seconds. For context, the fastest time among running backs at the Wolverines’ spring combinebelonged to projected starter Chris Evans at 4.64 seconds. Let that sink in. Gary is a step quicker than Michigan’s fastest halfback.
But to hear Michigan Defensive Line Coach Greg Mattison tell it, Gary’s most impressive trait isn’t his physical prowess.
“I’m gonna tell you this about Rashan Gary, and I hope every sports writer reads this and takes note: he’s got great character and he comes from a very good family upbringing,” Mattison told DraftWire last month.
You see, Gary isn’t just a fleet-footed behemoth bent on making Saturdays a living hell for left tackles. He’s also a really good guy. And on the Michigan defensive line, he’s not alone.
Carlo Kemp pulled a 4.0 all through high school. Michael Dwumfour just wants to make his Ghanaian immigrant parents proud. Chase Winovich has a blue-collar work ethic forged in the Pittsburgh steel mills. Gary leads with the confidence of a senior. Mattison and the Michigan staff have assembled a D-line of choirboys who can take your head off.
Since returning to Ann Arbor as defensive coordinator under Brady Hoke in 2011, Mattison has emerged a recruiter of character at a program anchored in integrity. While an explosive first step and raw strength are necessary to catch Mattison’s eye on the recruiting trail – this is Michigan, after all – he preaches that moral fiber is the best predictor of a player’s success.
“The young men that we get at Michigan, we take great, great pride in recruiting kids with high character, and, therefore, you can improve them as much as you want,” he told DraftWire. “You don’t have all the little pitfalls you could get sometimes when you don’t have great character.”
While successful as a defensive coordinator on both the professional and college levels, Mattison might be best suited as a position or unit coach. By narrowing his focus to the defensive line under Jim Harbaugh, he’s been able to instill an accountability and cohesiveness unmatched by Michigan’s other units.
“At Michigan, it’s just like a family, and that’s how it feels here (in New Jersey),” defensive end Ron Johnson Jr. told media in 2015 before enrolling in Ann Arbor. “It’s very family oriented … which makes it a good fit for guys like us.”
“Guys like us,” as in elite defensive linemen whose commitment to family and classwork exceeds their BMI. For guys like that, Mattison said Michigan is an easy sell.
“It’s a family atmosphere, and it’s the greatest program in the country,” he told MLive in 2013.
Family is a theme that saturates the Twitter feeds and recruiting profiles of Michigan’s young D-linemen. Whether he’s having the unit over for one of Ann Mattison’s home-cooked meals or putting in time with parents on the recruiting trail, Coach Mattison has turned the defensive line into a second home for recruits who value family. It’s as genius as it is honorable. And it taps into a loyalty and work ethic that translates to greatness.
“My family values hard work, and that’s all me and my sisters do,” Dwumfour told the Detroit Free Press last year.
Dwumfour’s parents both toiled their way out of poverty-stricken Ghana, eventually meeting and marrying in New Jersey where they pursued the American dream by the sweat of their brow. That work ethic is something they pressed on their children, one of who happened to tip the scales at 300 lbs. and possess that coveted quick first-step.
“My oldest sister, she’s in the Army. My second-oldest sister, she’s a nurse. And my third oldest, she’s in college. So it’s only right for me to carry that tradition of being successful,” said Dwumfour.
Kemp’s character became evident in his first season when the all-everything kid from an NFL coaching family faced an unfamiliar foe: failure. After struggling to learn Don Brown’s aggressive schemes at the linebacker spot, Kemp dug deep, emerging as the likely backup to Gary at strongside end, where he should see playing time in the fall.
“To say I didn’t (have self-doubt) would be a lie, just because there’s moments where you just keep messing up in practice and you just don’t feel you can get it,” Kemp told the Free Press in April. “You just got to silence your own voice and keep coming out to practice each and every day, just get a little bit better at something.”
The highest praise (and expectations) is reserved for Gary. To the last man, coaches speak to his humility, work ethic and a leadership approach that betrays an old soul in a true sophomore’s body.
“He’s out here early, he stays late. He’s trying to lift others around him,” Harbaugh told the Detroit News during the team’s much-publicized trip to Rome.
Throughout the trip, Gary joined Kemp to pore over game film in their hotel room at night. And just as NFL draftees Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley did for him last season, he works tirelessly alongside true freshmen on their hand and footwork.
“He’s got the highest football character you can have,” Harbaugh said. “He’s serious about being great, knows it’s not enough to just be good. It would be a sin to just be good when you were sent to be great like he is.”