Michigan football defensive players dominate The Athletic’s ‘freaks’ list, including No. 1 overall

·8 min read

Death, taxes, and a Michigan football defensive lineman at or near the top of Bruce Feldman’s annual ‘freaks’ list. Like Thanos, these things are inevitable.

Last year, Aidan Hutchinson, the second-overall NFL draft pick, was No. 2 in The Athletic’s perennial look into the freakiest athletes in college football. The year before, Kwity Paye was Feldman’s No. 1. This year is no different, with another No. 1 across college football going to the Wolverines.

The interesting thing here is that outside observers expect the maize and blue to have one of the most explosive offenses in the country, but have major questions on defense. Yet, Feldman includes four Wolverines on his list of 100 (usually one or two Michigan players make the cut) and all four of his inclusions from Ann Arbor come from the defensive side of the ball.

The distinction of being at the very top this season this season goes to Michigan interior lineman Mazi Smith, who goes ahead of an Ohio State wide receiver — an impressive feat, given Smith comes in at 337-pounds.

Here’s why Feldman says that the senior defensive tackle is the freakiest athlete in college football.

Photo: Isaiah Hole

1. Mazi Smith, Michigan, defensive tackle 

His former teammate, Aidan Hutchinson, almost was our top guy in 2021, but this year a Wolverine is the No. 1 Freak in college football. The 6-foot-3, 337-pound senior has rare power and agility. So rare, in fact, it’s hard to find the right superlative to begin with. But let’s start with this: Smith does 22 reps on the bench press, but that’s with 325 (not 225). He close-grip benched 550 pounds. He vertical-jumps 44 inches. He broad-jumped 9-4 1/2. Smith, who had 37 tackles last season, has clocked a 4.41 shuttle time, which would’ve tied the best by any defensive tackle at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, and it would’ve been better than any defensive tackle weighing 310 pounds or more in the past decade. His 6.95 3-cone time would’ve been by far the fastest among defensive tackles in Indianapolis. The fastest was 7.33. Smith’s 60-yard shuttle time is 11.90.

The Wolverines do a reactive plyo stairs test, which is a series of seven 26-inch high stairs that players attempt to jump up as fast as possible. The team record is 2.21 seconds. Smith did it in 2.82. To better gauge just how impressive that is, Hutchinson, some 60 pounds lighter than Smith, did it in 2.57.

Even more remarkable: The Wolverines also do a workout on their combo-twist machine, which is designed to show a player’s ability to rotate an opponent but also their ability to resist being rotated in the trenches. Smith had the machine completely tapped out. There was only enough room for 300 pounds on each side of the machine for a 600-pound max.

“For Mazi, it wasn’t even challenging,” says one of the Wolverine strength coaches. A staffer called the manufacturer to see if there was a way to extend it, then ultimately contacted a private company to build custom extenders for the combo-twist, which made it capable of loading up to 800 pounds to accommodate Smith.

“Mazi’s rotational strength is ridiculous,” said longtime Michigan strength coach Ben Herbert, who said Smith is the strongest defensive lineman he’s seen in 25 years in the business. “He is an incredible combination of rare traits packaged into one player. He is just ridiculously strong and powerful.”

But Mazi was far from the only Wolverine to make the cut. Here’s who else Feldman says is something to behold in nature.

NEXT, a return player from last year’s list.

julius welschof michigan defensive end
julius welschof michigan defensive end

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Of course, given that he was No. 33 a year ago, Michigan’s Julius Welschof remains on the list, this year moving from defensive tackle to EDGE, while moving up on the list to No. 7 overall.

We won’t spend much time explaining more about Welschof’s prowess, a player who should see a lot more playing time in his fifth-year, we’ll leave that to Feldman.

7. Julius Welschof, Michigan, edge

Welschof has been on our radar since before he arrived at Michigan. European super scout Brandon Collier has been buzzing about him and his Freakish ability for years. Back then, Welschof was a 6-6, 220-pound former champion moguls skier from Germany doing backflips on his skis and walking 50 yards on his hands. Since arriving in Ann Arbor, Welschof has dazzled his teammates with his athleticism. Asked what the most impressive thing he’s ever seen Welschof do, standout cornerback DJ Turner said it’s an ankle mobility test that measures the flexibility in their lower legs.

“Usually people get like 12 inches. I was like 13 or 14. He got 23 inches,” Turner said. “Stuff that he can do sometimes just doesn’t make sense — like what?!? How can he do that?”

Technically, Welschof measured 22 inches on his right leg and 23 on his left. “From his skiing background with how his lower limbs function, he has tremendous range of motion,” Michigan strength coach Ben Herbert said. “His ankle mobility is ridiculous.”

That’s just the start of it. “Juice,” who has leaned down 22 pounds to 268, broad-jumps 10-5 consistently and vertical-jumped 34 1/2 inches this offseason. His 40 was 4.66. The most amazing numbers posted by former Wolverine Freak Aidan Hutchinson were his shuttle times. Hutchinson did 6.73 in the 3-cone drill in Indy (sixth fastest among all players there). Hutchinson clocked a 6.54 last offseason in Ann Arbor. Herbert said Welschof ran a 6.76 this offseason. He’s also done a 4.19 in the 20-yard shuttle — only Hutchinson’s 4.15 was faster among D-linemen and linebackers in Indy. Hutchinson was the first athlete Herbert ever witnessed do a “Turkish Get-Up” with 135 pounds and no collars (to lock on the plates) in a quarter-century working in college weight rooms. This offseason, Welschof did it with a 160-pound dumbbell “like it was effortless.”

But, again, more Wolverine defenders are included, all in the top half of Feldman’s list.

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Michigan’s secondary figures to be pretty good this year, even as there’s some tinkering going on. From safeties Rod Moore and RJ Moten, who saw ample playing time a year ago, to corners Gemon Green, Mike Sainristil, and former five-star Will Johnson.

However, of those who will be in the defensive backfield, Feldman sees big things coming for Georgia native DJ Turner, a speedster who could be one of the Big Ten’s best cornerbacks.

31. DJ Turner, Michigan, cornerback

A former three-star recruit who has made big strides in Ann Arbor, Turner’s grown from 177 pounds to 187 and is coming off a strong year. He made honorable mention All-Big Ten after producing 33 tackles, nine PBUs and two interceptions. He is the fastest guy on the Wolverines, having hit 23.07 mph on the GPS and run a 4.28 40 — out of a two-point stance, no less. His 3-cone time is even more stunning. He clocked a 6.29 this offseason, and strength coaches think he has a good shot at besting the combine record of 6.28, set in 2018 by Oklahoma’s Jordan Thomas.

That’s not all. There’s one more. And this time, it’s a player we haven’t seen yet. And one that hasn’t been mentioned on these pages.

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Jim Harbaugh waxed poetic about a mystery freshman at Big Ten media days a few weeks ago. Due to his conversation with Feldman moments before he took to the podium, we guessed who the Michigan head coach was talking about.

Regardless of who Harbaugh was alluding to when talking to the media, the impression stuck with Feldman from their conversation, as the literal biggest man on the team, first-year defensive tackle Kenneth Grant, a 357-pound behemoth from Merrillville, Indiana, comes in just shy of the top 50.

46. Kenneth Grant, Michigan, defensive tackle

Remember this name. He was only ranked a three-star recruit coming out of Indiana, but he’s already generated a lot of buzz inside the Wolverines program in a few months there. At 6-4, 360, he ran a sub-5.0 40, Jim Harbaugh told The Athletic this month. Ben Herbert, the UM strength coach who has trained more than his share of Freaks, said Grant has “incredible traits” and “is likely to be a No. 1 (Freak)” down the line if he applies himself.

Herbert said one of the tests is a 26-inch high reactive plyo staircase, on which receiver Roman Wilson recently set a Wolverine record, going 2.21. Aidan Hutchinson did it in 2.57, which was flying. When Grant first started, he posted impressive times for his massive size, going as low as 3.2, but after a few weeks, he’s done it as fast as 2.77. “Everyone about fell over when they saw that,” Herbert said.

If Feldman ends up being correct with these inclusions, the Wolverines will be in a really good spot this year. Especially given that three of Feldman’s four inclusions all come on a defensive front that people question the most. Between these players, the offense having very high expectations, and the schedule, the sky might be the limit for this Michigan football team.

Story originally appeared on Wolverines Wire