With the first day of fall camp just 10 days away, the Michigan Wolverines are hoping to answer several lingering questions before they kick off the season at home on Sept. 4 against Western Michigan.
One of those lingering questions is the defensive line and, more specifically, who's going to assert themselves into a starting role up front. Though Michigan returns the experience of guys like Aidan Hutchinson, Donovan Jeter and Christopher Hinton, the rest of the options up front remain largely unproven.
Among the unproven group of individuals vying for a starting role is Mazi Smith, a 322-pound defensive tackle out of Grand Rapids (Mich.) East Kentwood High School. Smith, entering his third year at the University of Michigan, believes he's finally ready to take that next step. In addition to improving his diet, Smith believes the new scheme by first year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is better suited for his abilities.
"It's a lot simpler, at least for the guys up front," said Smith. "Playing it - I'm not going to get into it too much, it just fit me a little differently. I fit more into it."
While Smith wouldn't divulge too many details about the defense, he made clear that the new scheme is predicated on playing to players' strengths.
"Big time playing to your strengths, playing to your personnel," he said. "They're asking big strong people to do what big strong people do - and what more can you ask as a big strong person?"
Following Big Ten Media Days, it's clear that Smith's improvement over the last year and comfort within the new defensive scheme is apparent to those around him. In fact, Smith's name was mentioned several times throughout the event - as senior captain Aidan Hutchinson, linebacker Josh Ross and head coach Jim Harbaugh all singled out Smith as someone to keep your eye on.
"A guy like Mazi Smith has really asserted himself through spring ball and the summer cycle," said head coach Jim Harbaugh. "Mazi has completely changed his body into a power pack. He's big, wide, thick, strong and he's retained his speed and athleticism. His strike, his knock-back."
Hutchinson has seen some of the same things.
"Mazi has stepped up, I've seen the most improvement in him in spring ball. It's the best I've ever...he's playing his best football right now. He's going to be a really big asset for us this season. Just watch, he's going to light it up. He's a real good ball player, he's got the frame, he's got the body. He can do everything, he's just got to do it in the games and then you guys will see."
With fall camp less than two weeks away, it certainly sounds like Smith is on the verge of taking the next big step in his Michigan football career.