Michigan’s Rashan Gary discusses how he and his family handled the criticism while he was out with a shoulder injury, Nov. 6, 2018.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
Standing outside a doorway next to the stage at Hill Auditorium, Jim Harbaugh put on glasses, squinted into Mike Tirico’s cell phone and let out a forceful sigh of relief.
No, this wasn’t a scene from a sitcom. It was the moment Michigan’s head coach found out Rashan Gary, the country’s top-ranked recruit at the time, was coming to Ann Arbor.
Michigan was in the final moments of its first “Signing of the Stars” spectacle in February 2016, a circus-like event that generated a gargantuan level of recruiting hype. Gary’s pledge, aired live on ESPN and shown to Harbaugh by Tirico in the hallway, was the fever pitch of the afternoon.
“For the next three to four years,” Gary said, “I will be furthering my education and football career at the University of Michigan.”
Ultimately, and to no one’s surprise, Gary went with the former — officially declaring for the 2019 NFL draft after three years in Ann Arbor. He has yet to say whether or not he’ll participate in the Wolverines’ upcoming bowl game. But, basically, his Michigan career is over.
Super recruits, and Gary was one, are judged on a different spectrum. Fair or not. When fans see “5-star” next to a player’s name, they expect nothing but dominance because that’s what they’ve been told to expect by anyone and everyone delivering said ranking. It’s part of the deal.
My first up-close glimpse of Gary offered the same assertion. He was working out in Orlando for the Under Armour All-American Game in December of 2015 with some of the best prep players in America. In terms of pure physical assessment, he stood out above the rest. In isolated drills, he calmly left carnage in his wake. It was nothing for Gary to rock an offensive lineman onto his heels with a one-arm thrust before tapping the pass-rush bag as if none of this was difficult or challenging.
I’m a cynic by nature. But after watching Gary that day, I turned to another football-savvy reporter and said: “If he’s in college beyond three years, something went wrong.”
Physically, Gary has everything. And a massive part of the NFL draft process is measurement-based.
But how’d it all turn out for Gary at Michigan?
Probably depends on what you wanted from him.
“He could’ve sat the rest of the season out and (focused) on his goals and dreams,” Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson said earlier in November, interrupting a question from reporters to emphasize Gary’s reputation in the locker room. “But it’s all about the team with Rashan.”
Gary is, was and has been universally respected inside Michigan’s locker room for his work ethic, humble nature and genuine personality. He refers to his teammates as his “brothers,” and that comes from a very real place. He’s a people-pleaser. He’s serious about football. He doesn’t go out of his way to bring attention to himself, and was one of the quietest top-ranked recruits in recent memory.
On the field, one could argue Gary spent three years playing out of position at Michigan. He won’t be an even-front defensive end in the NFL. The 6-foot-5, 287-pounder will be a three-technique defensive tackle at the next level if he’s in a 4-3. If he’s playing in a three-man front, he’ll be an end.
At Michigan, he was a strong-side edge setter, a position Greg Mattison and Don Brown call “anchor,” whose responsibility was — above all — to set the edge on the strong side of the field to allow others around him the opportunity to make plays. Pass rush from that spot is generally done through chips from backs and tight ends or double teams.
Chase Winovich had eight sacks and 18½ tackles for loss in 2017 playing the rush end spot opposite Gary. When Gary went down with a shoulder injury this season, most of the attention Gary normally get shifted to Winovich, whose pass rush numbers dipped in Gary’s absence. This also created pass rush opportunities for opposite ends Josh Uche and Kwity Paye.
Winovich has acknowledged this.
“He’s such a presence, that even if maybe they’re not paying more attention in terms of blockers on him, it funnels people toward me,” Winovich said of Gary earlier this season. “Typically I have my biggest days (when) they’re running more plays my side. And whenever you’re that guy (they move away from), it makes it tougher (to get tackles and tackles for loss).”
Gary’s value to Michigan’s defense went beyond box score stats, though some critiques of his game were fair. Notably consistency.
He wasn’t always the type of overwhelming on-field presence most associate with a top-ranked recruit, even if he was very good for most of his tenure at Michigan. He didn’t always finish in the backfield. His rush lanes can be undisciplined, from time to time. If it was a race to the quarterback, Winovich and Devin Bush Jr. got there first more often than not. Gary also played hurt as a junior, and finished the 2017 season dealing with a shoulder injury.
“Play your position, control your gap and let these (linebackers) run,” Mattison said this year when referring to the No. 1 goal of defensive linemen in U-M’s system. “And you’ll have success.”
Were Gary’s numbers Earth-shattering? No. Is that the entire story? No.
As of Saturday, his 35-game tenure featured 137 tackles (24 for a loss), 10½ sacks and a forced fumble. He didn’t rewrite the record book, but he wasn’t asked to either.
Gary was, however, a physical presence that every opponent he played against had to plan for. If he runs a sub 4.6 40-yard dash at the NFL combine and puts up numbers similar to what he has shown at Michigan, he’ll get paid a fortune as a first-rounder.
Super recruits are unfairly given a standard of perfection. Gary wasn’t perfect. But he was absolutely a top-end player at Michigan. And his best football should still be in front of him.
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.