Get ready and stay ready, folks. It is Rivalry Week, and the Wolverines are coming to Columbus! TTUN will be making its long-awaited return to The Shoe after dodging their last scheduled trip in 2020 (you know it, I know it, we all know it). The stakes are about as high as they will ever get, with both Ohio State and TTUN fighting for a College Football Playoff berth. And unlike last season, both teams are undefeated thus far in 2022, with a legitimate argument for being viewed as the top team in all of college football. But first, they have to get past one another.
Jim Harbaugh’s team lost two first-round NFL Draft picks from a year ago, and it would have been three had David Ojabo not suffered an injury during combine prep. Additionally, the Wolverines lost a very productive running back in Hassan Haskins, leading tackler Josh Ross, and a host of other players. They were a legitimate squad of world-beaters in 2021. Or Buckeye beaters, at least. The bar could have been set much lower for this 2022 version of TTUN, but instead, they are back in an enviable position and fighting for a second consecutive shot at the CFP.
Ryan Day’s group is right there with the Wolverines (actually ranked higher, but who’s counting), hoping for a return trip of their own. Ohio State was memorably dismantled by Alabama in 2020’s CFP National Championship Game, and would love nothing more than to get the sour taste out of their collective mouths. That taste became even more wretched and foul last November, when TTUN handed the Buckeyes their first loss in The Game since 2011. So, yeah, one could say that this version of The Game – the 13th in which both teams are ranked inside the top-5 – is a big one. HUGE even.
And speaking of HUGE, how about some of these defenders in maize and blue? First round draft picks and numerous multi-year starters are gone, only to be replaced by an unheralded group of former role players. The result? Pretty damn good thus far, as TTUN ranks first nationally in total defense and second in points per game allowed. Linebacker Junior Colson finished fifth in total tackles for the Wolverines last year, making him the only returnee who finished among the top-7. Big Mike Morris (6-foot-6, 280 pounds) was credited with just half a sack last year, but became one of the team’s top returning sack artists.
Both players have elevated their respective games, but neither is the colossal defender I was previously referring to. That honor belongs to defensive lineman Mazi Smith, this week’s Defensive Player to Watch.
The fourth-year DL, who boasts a 6-foot-3, nearly 340 pound frame, is one of CFB’s most physically imposing players. And after a slow start to his college career, Smith’s skill has caught up to his impressive size, making him an indispensable asset for this TTUN defense. The big man will never lead his team in tackles or sacks, but his sheer presence makes every other player around him better. He could absolutely play the role of game-wrecker on Saturday.
Hailing from Grand Rapids (MI), Smith was a four-star recruit in the 2019 class, and a top-10 defensive tackle. He was pursued by a who’s who of CFB – including Ohio State – but always seemed likely to stay home. Having decided to do just that, Smith joined the Wolverines with high expectations already thrust upon him. But he did not become an instant success. Far from it, actually.
Smith appeared in just two games as a true freshman, and was not credited with any official stats. No big surprise, as many players take a season or two (or more) to find their groove, if it happens at all. It is also entirely possible that Smith was pushed around and bullied as a freshman, while he was tipping the scales at “only” 290 pounds. Whatever the reason, his second year in Ann Arbor was supposed to be a coming out party. But 2020 had different plans. For all of us.
During the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Smith appeared in five games and was credited with three total tackles... Not great, Bob. Through two years, and with seven appearances under his belt, the *ichigan native was certainly trending toward “bust” territory. Fair or not – healthy or not – such is reality for a player of his caliber. But 2021 finally brought about new opportunities, and Smith ran with them. He has not looked back since, developing into a potential All-American.
Smith entered TTUN’s starting lineup last season, and held onto a spot for all 14 games. He finished with 37 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, to go with an impressive four pass breakups. Those stats don’t necessarily jump off the page, but Smith’s impact should always be measured by the eye test. He consistently occupies two or three blockers, collapses the pocket, and/or clogs up running lanes. In doing so, he helped Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo combine for 25 sacks in 2021.
Both of those players were dynamic on their own, but if anybody tells you they would have put up eye-popping stats with walk-ons playing next to them, then that person does not know football. I am not saying Smith was the defensive MVP for Harbaugh and company, but he was absolutely essential to that unit’s success. And the same could be said for this year’s squad.
But prior to the 2022 season even beginning, Smith was honored with a unique “award” of sorts. He was named as the No. 1 freak in CFB — meant as a term of endearment or badge of honor. The Freaks List, put out annually by The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman for nearly two decades, spotlights players who generate buzz inside their programs by displaying unique physical abilities. Feldman recognized Smith as perhaps the most impressive athlete in his sport, citing 22 reps of 325 pounds on the bench, a 33-inch vertical jump, and a 4.41 shuttle time... at 337 pounds! Just absurd numbers for a tank of a man.
Freakish testing numbers aside, Smith has continued to dominate up front for the Wolverines. In 11 games this season, he has been credited with 39 tackles and 2.5 TFL. He also added half a sack against Colorado State. But again I remind you that stats do not tell the whole story with this enormous-ly talented player. He is a pressure creator and a run stuffer. He swallows up blockers and creates one-on-one matchups for his teammates (such as Morris, who has 7.5 sacks). Not every interior DL is going to put up numbers like Aaron Donald, but I would argue that Smith is nearly as valuable — to his team.
This midseason All-American has helped TTUN hold opponents to just 79.5 rushing yards per game, good for second in FBS. And as previously mentioned, the Wolverines are also first in total defense and second in PPG allowed. They are an impressive team, and Smith is an impressive player. He will likely be a headache for Donovan Jackson, Luke Wypler, and Matt Jones (or Enokk Vimahi) this weekend. But I believe in the Buckeyes. Ohio State will need to gameplan for Smith’s dominant physical presence, and I think they will be up to the challenge. Go Bucks!