David stopped by Grand Haven on his way to the Northwestern game, and though I’m sure the boardwalk is worth the trip it wasn’t to do touristy things. East Kentwood was in town, which was an opportunity to get eyes on two defensive line prospects, Mazi Smith and Bryce Mostella. Smith, a senior checking in at a nose tackle-y 6’3” and 290 pounds, committed back in June and is the rare player that has been on Michigan’s radar long enough while playing close enough for us to scout him more than once. He’s also one of the headliners of the 2019 class, as his composite rating of 94.29 places him fourth among Michigan’s current commits. Mostella, a junior, looks every bit of his listed 6’6” and 240 pounds. He is currently a composite four-star with offers from most everyone in the Big Ten (including Ohio State), so he certainly merits closer examination as well. Does Smith live up to the hype over the course of a full game? David texted me before the game that he was on the field and Mostella is the size of Cam Newton, but what are his strengths and weaknesses? And does he have the same sartorial fearlessness? Hit the jump for answers to most of those questions.
[After THE JUMP: Every-snap film and scouting]
[Smith is #58 and has a black shirt underneath his jersey; Mostella is #70, plays both DE spots, and starts to the top of the screen]
2019 DT Mazi Smith
Please start the video at 4:00. Whether you’ve watched it already or not, just start there. There’s a lot to take in here, so let’s walk through this one in excruciating detail together. First, Smith (black shirt sticks out below his jersey, lined head up on the center) fires off the snap and into his gap, and “fire” is really the only adequate verb here. Every snap it’s like he’s shot out of a cannon and into the opposing line. He then pops the chest plate of the guard, turns him, and moves him back a yard. The poor guard lands in the way of Smith as he is in pursuit of the quarterback, who has started to roll to his right. Smith uses his hands to shed and escape, but at this point he’s too far away to drag down the quarterback. He stays in pursuit, though. Then, around 4:04, the right guard loses his mind. He sees an opportunity to cheap shot Smith and… takes it? My son was selling some pizza kits as a fundraiser for his school and they have this “refrigerate or freeze immediately” warning printed on the box, and I was worried that one of the ones that was outside the fridge for a while was going to give us food poisoning; this kind of risk-taking doesn’t make sense to me. The RG bounces off because he’s about half the size of Smith, then Smith grabs him and tries to flop on him.
On the next play, Smith gets his hands on the center and literally throws him aside, then obliterates the left guard’s pull with a shove that crumples him. Then Smith runs over—who else—the right guard as he turns on a dime to get downfield and dive on the running back. It’s everything I saw from him over the course of the game distilled into two plays: burst, leverage, strength, and tenacity.
Smith was in the backfield on almost every play. He was clearly the best player on the field, but one byproduct of that is difficulty in assessing hand placement and technique because he didn’t need to use that to get past the opposing line. Footwork was a little easier to assess because Grand Haven opened the game with the idea that they were going to cut block him and it didn’t work. On the first play, you can see that Smith fires upfield at the snap and then plants both feet and hops back once he feels contact from the cut block. The result is Smith shuffling down a couple gaps and assisting on the tackle. It looks like the center tries to cut again the next play, but Smith takes two quick steps laterally to skirt the block.
Smith either got into his gap by way of his first step and used his hands to move opposing linemen, though the strength disparity was so great that there were times he just ran through them to get into the backfield. A good example is seen at 6:36, where Smith runs over the center off the snap to gain access to the backfield, then wraps up and twists down the ballcarrier. He also showed an ability to turn good hand placement into offensive lineman displacement as at 1:56, where he gets one hand on the chest and another the shoulder of the center, turns him inside, and finds the back as he hits the hole—all while literally being tackled from behind.
Then there’s the play at 3:26, which has a little bit of everything. Smith crosses the face of the center to get into the opposite A gap but his DT is there, which makes me think this was a blown stunt. Smith makes it work, though, timing his shot to the center’s chest well and immediately turning to the side to skinny up and slip through the closing gap. Smith uses his wingspan to get a hand on the quarterback as he steps up into the pocket and brings him down with one arm. Greg Mattison has so much to work with here.
2020 DE Bryce Mostella
Mostella is all length and potential at this point. There’s a stretch of three plays from 3:10-3:35 that more or less sum up what I saw from him at this point. Mostella looks to get inside the opposing lineman with speed, and he’s in trouble when a lineman gets their hands on him because he’s standing up and needs to work on his hand technique. He’s also going to need to add at least twenty pounds without losing speed to hold up; the kick out on the first play is evidence of that. Keeping his pads down was a consistent issue, though it seems that this was possibly exaggerated by the height of the guys he was lined up across from in this game; look at the play at 00:15 and how he sort of overshoots the guy’s pads with his hands and it’s very clear Mostella is 6’6” and his opponents not even close.
The best things I saw from him in this game were at 00:51, where he runs through the lineman for a half sack, and at 2:36, where Mostella does a nice job shooting a gap and stuffing the ballcarrier on a pitch. He has a frame that should be more than capable of handling extra weight and wingspan that reminds me of that Michael Jordan “Wings” poster, so there’s a ton of upside that could be realized here.
I wrote last year that I thought Smith was a better long-term fit at 3T instead of NT because he didn’t hold up on double teams but was able to use his speed to be disruptive when blocked by just one lineman. I still think he would be an excellent fit at 3T, but I think Michigan is getting someone with true positional versatility. Smith is already almost exactly the listed height and weight of Aubrey Solomon, and he showed in this game that he has the leverage and strength needed to play nose. (Even if he didn’t, his height and weight alone might make him a natural candidate to start there, as the 2019 depth chart at NT is Solomon, Jeter, then nobody.) His speed off the snap was impressive and should allow him to get his helmet into a gap before a double team closes it, which is another point in favor of using him at nose.
There were a few times that Grand Haven’s triple option gave him trouble with regard to diagnosing the run and a couple of instances where he got too far upfield too fast. Said offense also makes it difficult to evaluate his pass-rush game, though that’s not as big a deal for a 3T/NT type as it is a DE. Overall, Smith was a disruptive force on almost every play, getting into the backfield with ease and forcing Grand Haven to run away from him. He checked all the boxes for an interior lineman for me: he is fast enough to put offensive linemen in a disadvantageous position before they’ve taken two steps or to mess up the timing of a double team, strong enough to win a one-on-one battle with an OL, and well conditioned and willing to run down a play from the backside.
Mostella strikes me as someone who’s a junior still getting used to being so dang tall. His sideline-to-sideline effort was excellent; he changed direction and ran to the ball no matter where it went. With his wingspan, it seems to me that adding even a little bit of strength and working on technique could make him a candidate for a Carl Weathers bump. He has the frame of a pass-rush specialist, but that wasn’t featured against a team that ran the ball about 90% of the time. Between that, consistent leverage and hand placement issues, and the upside that’s there with a few tweaks, file under “check back next year.”