ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When the Michigan football team takes the field later this month, there are a handful of players who could really provide a boost with a breakout season. One of the most important is defensive tackle Chris Hinton.
Football, perhaps more than any other sport, takes an entire team to be successful. An elite scorer or lockdown defender can carry a basketball team. A pitcher can shut down an opponent in baseball. But in football, even if 10 players do their job, that 11th guy can spoil a play all by himself.
So it’s not that Hinton alone could make or break the defense. But he might be the player whose individual performance creates the widest range of possible outcomes.
Hinton feels like the most overlooked five-star recruit in Michigan history -- maybe because he didn’t make a big splash as a true freshman or because he was overshadowed by Daxton Hill.
Coming out of Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, Georgia, Hinton was the 31st-ranked player in the 2019 recruiting class, the No. 4 defensive tackle and No. 7 player in his state.
Hinton was a five-star prospect in the 247 Sports composite rankings and picked Michigan over scholarship offers from Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Georgia, LSU, Auburn, Florida, USC, Tennessee and others.
Size, strength and technique were considered among Hinton’s elite attributes. That should bode well for him in the middle of Michigan’s defensive line.
Defensive line outlook
It’s no secret Michigan’s defensive line underperformed a year ago. Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye were dangerous pass rushers on the edge, but the interior of the line was a weakness, and the top teams in the Big Ten bullied Michigan in the trenches.
Hutchinson and Paye are back, as is team captain Carlo Kemp. That leaves one starting spot on the line, and Hinton is the front runner.
He started once as a true freshman and appeared in 12 games, making nine tackles and one tackle for loss against Ohio State.
In 2020, his role will be much more prominent.
Think of the recent great Michigan defenses. They’ve all included a defensive line that could pressure the quarterback and make plays in the backfield. That was missing against the likes of Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State last season.
Hinton doesn’t have to be Maurice Hurst, but Michigan needs him to be a threat from the interior of the line. Kemp is a solid player and reliable run stopper, but he’s not going to post a high sack total.
If Hinton emerges as a pass rushing weapon -- which his recruiting pedigree suggests is well within his skill set -- Michigan will have a dangerous defensive line. If not, the defense will have a weak underbelly be vulnerable against teams that are strong up front.
The teams that compete for College Football Playoff bids and national championships always have strong defensive lines. Look at Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. They’re always sacking the quarterback and sending D-linemen to the NFL.
For Michigan, the line is even more important than usual this year.
Don Brown has to replace his top two cornerbacks -- Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas -- as well as Khaleke Hudson, a three-year starter at viper.
That means the secondary is a huge question mark as Vincent Gray takes over the No. 1 cornerback role and an array of new faces battle for snaps behind him.
If opposing quarterbacks -- think Tanner Morgan, Sean Clifford and Justin Fields -- have time to stand in the pocket without pressure, they’ll pick the inexperienced Michigan secondary apart. It’s absolutely critical for the defensive line to get pressure without committing too many players to the blitz and compromising coverage downfield.
We know Hutchinson and Paye will be pass rushing threats, but Michigan needs one of its defensive tackles to develop into a third. Hinton has the upside and the opportunity to fill that role, and the ripple effect could take the defense to a whole new level.