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Michigan football is shining, and so is Aidan Hutchinson

MLive - Jackson logo MLive - Jackson 10/28/2021 Aaron McMann, mlive.com
Michigan defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson (97) tries to get into the backfield against Western Michigan running back Sean Tyler (9) and offensive lineman Mark Brooks (60) in the second quarter of their college football game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, on Saturday, September 4, 2021. © Mike Mulholland | mmulholl@mlive/Mike Mulholland | MLive.com Michigan defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson (97) tries to get into the backfield against Western Michigan running back Sean Tyler (9) and offensive lineman Mark Brooks (60) in the second quarter of their college football game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, on Saturday, September 4, 2021.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Aidan Hutchinson is highly visible on Saturdays, navigating the minefield of opposing offenses to wreak havoc in the backfield.

Teammates say his motor is unlike anything they have ever seen, while coaches laud the Michigan defensive end’s work ethic. His desire to keep getting better hasn’t gone unnoticed.

And with the sixth-ranked Wolverines seven games into the 2021 season, one marked by change itself, Hutchinson has picked up right where he left off last year after he was sidelined with an ankle fracture. He’ll have an opportunity to showcase it all this Saturday in front of a national TV audience in East Lansing (noon, FOX), where 7-0 Michigan is set to play 7-0 Michigan State, the No. 8-ranked team in the country.

“Last year kind of left a bad taste in your mouth, especially with them — a game I really felt like we should have won,” Hutchinson told reporters this week. “But we just couldn’t close it out. We’ve closed the book on last year and we’re ready to take ‘em on this year. We’re a whole new team. Whole new culture. We’re just ready to go.”

Michigan’s turnaround on the football field this year has been quite remarkable, particularly on the defensive side. A brand new coordinator with limited experience at the college level, Mike Macdonald, has revamped a scheme once known for its pressure and inordinate amount of blitzing into a respectable, balanced unit. They’re keeping the ball in front of them, limiting big plays, keeping opposing offenses guessing and, yes, still getting to the quarterback. Hutchinson’s led that effort with a team-high 5 1/2 sacks, garnering plenty of attention and double teams that it’s opened things up on the other side of the line.

Michigan defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson (97) tries to get into the backfield against Western Michigan running back Sean Tyler (9) and offensive lineman Mark Brooks (60) in the second quarter of their college football game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, on Saturday, September 4, 2021. © Mike Mulholland | mmulholl@mlive/Mike Mulholland | MLive.com Michigan defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson (97) tries to get into the backfield against Western Michigan running back Sean Tyler (9) and offensive lineman Mark Brooks (60) in the second quarter of their college football game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, on Saturday, September 4, 2021.

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“He’s just been so consistent,” Michigan defensive line coach Shaun Nua said. “Every play, every game. Play in, play out, his mindset is to get to the back end and destroy and the backfield. He sets the edge well and he’s chasing down plays.

“If you watch him on all those screens, he’s running his butt off.”

It’s true. Find the film from a Michigan game this year and watch an opposing team’s drive. More often than not you’ll see Hutchinson having some sort of impact on the play, whether it’s actually applying pressure on the quarterback or chasing down the ballcarrier. It’s nothing new, his teammates say, who have to block him on a regular basis in practice.

“He’s so unpredictable,” tight end Luke Schoonmaker said. “I enjoy getting those periods to work against him. I mean, if you put on the practice film, there isn’t a play that he takes off. Like, seriously. He goes hard all the time.”

Not surprisingly, Hutchinson’s motor, skills and on-field production this year has him rising in the eyes of NFL draft analysts. ESPN’s Todd McShay listed Hutchinson, a Plymouth, Mich., native and two-time Michigan captain, fifth in his 2022 NFL Draft prospect rankings. Hutchinson was a Day 2 prospect last year before he suffered the injury, but McShay believes his “powerful game” and “relentless pursuit” will make him a Day 1 pick come April.

More: Aidan Hutchinson hopes Michigan win can make ex-roommate ‘feel bad’ about MSU transfer

The NFL talk is not lost on Hutchinson, who was seeing the chatter about accolades and rankings on social media last week. That’s when he decided to deactivate his accounts and keep the focus on the task at hand, beating Michigan State.

“If you’re a player at Michigan, you have to beat State,” Hutchinson said. “It’s a requirement every year. If you don’t, then the season is just not complete.”

Maybe not so, but Hutchinson continues to earn the praise from his coaches, including Jim Harbaugh who watched Hutchinson return from his injury in the spring and request that Michigan’s strength and conditioning staff “wring me out.”

“He’s transparent as a baggy,” Harbaugh recently said. “What you see is what you get. He loves football. He’s a great teammate; he’s a great leader. He does everything right.”

That dedication, and borderline obsession, with returning better than ever seemed to permeate through the team. New assistants were added and changes made, setting the stage for a groundbreaking spring that spilled into summer and carried over to the fall. Michigan’s having fun and winning football games again, two key ingredients Hutchinson envisioned for his college football career. But he hasn’t allowed the success to get in his way. He’s always looking to improve — “little things,” Hutchinson says, like his foot work — and fine-tune his arsenal.

“What he went through the last two years was tough,” Nua said. “And for someone who’s highly competitive like that, it gets into you. It eats you alive. Now we’re in a very good place and he’s taking full advantage. It just adds more fuel to the flame — and he’s burning.”

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