April 13, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Motivation isn't something that can be rated at football scouting combines. But if it could be quantified, Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary would be off the charts.
He's been a fire burning to be better ever since arriving on campus 15 months ago. Gary tirelessly watches film -- something instilled in him by Taco Charlton during his freshman season, when he longed to turn his seven quarterback hurries into pure sacks. He's applied himself so diligently to strength and conditioning that his 40-yard dash dropped from 4.7 seconds to an eye-popping 4.57 seconds.
Gary watched senior defensive linemen Chris Wormley and Charlton like a young hawk, sought the guidance and wisdom of Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison, and displayed an insatiable desire to improve on the 27 tackles (five for lost yardage) and one sack he made as a key reserve last season.
"I came back and watched film of my (pass) rushes," said Gary, "and then I watched film of Taco's, and compared them. I'd say, 'OK, I went too wide. I've got to cut the edge a bit.' And I'd go back and practice, and I'm big on film now. I never used to have to watch film, but film has become a big part of my game. I break down the film and look at what I can do to offensive linemen to have an advantage."
Gary, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation in 2016 from Paramus (New Jersey) Catholic, became the No. 1 pick by U-M coaches in their recent draft to form teams for Saturday's (April 15) Spring Game at Michigan Stadium.
When your most talented player also is as motivated as anyone, you've got something really special.
Gary has followed the lead of Jabrill Peppers since they were high school teammates, and I asked Gary if he had a desire to follow Peppers all the way to New York City, becoming another extremely rare primarily defensive player to become a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
"Oh, yeah," Gary said with a smile. "I'm looking to become one of the best defensive players in the nation, and that's what I keep working for.
"Plus, I'm trying to be the best who ever played. I feel if that's not a personal goal, you shouldn't be playing."
Peppers showed him the way to shoot for the moon.
Gary said: "I watched how Jabrill handled things, talked to the media, and how he held himself. He's such a high-character guy, and a good guy to be around. You feed off his energy when you are at low points. He keeps your juice going."
He wants greatness so badly that he can hardly contain his excitement for the upcoming season.
"Everybody is ready and anxious for it," said Gary. "We've been going against each other for I don't know how long, and now we're just ready to get after somebody."
When we sat down and talked earlier this week after practice, I asked Gary for the source of his great desire.
Gary shows the tattoos of his mother, Jennifer Coney, (front) and sister, Nefessa Gary, on his left arm.
He rolled back the sweatshirt sleeve on his left arm to reveal a family tattoo.
The face of his mother, Jennifer Coney, is just above his wrist and her first name is inked in cursive on his inner arm. The face of his sister, Nefessa Gary, 29, is just above that of their mother, along with an inscription on his outer arm: "My sister's keeper."
"That's the way my mom and my sister raised me -- to be blue collar, work hard and never give up," said Gary. "They taught me to strive to be the best.
"So, I've got this tattoo of my mom and my sister on my arm. My sister has, 'My brother's protector' and me on her arm and the same tattoos. Sometimes, I roll up this sleeve and look at my mom and sister, and that gives me extra energy. They're why I play this game, and want to be the best."
Gary also wears No. 3 for them.
"I wear that because I was born on Dec. 3 (1997) and that's my mom's and sister's favorite number," he said.
He's thriving and advancing so swiftly that Gary already has become a mentor, showing the way for early-enrolled freshmen defensive linemen Donovan Jeter and Corey Malone-Hatcher, and also talking on the phone to prepare Aubrey Solomon, an incoming defensive lineman as coveted as Gary, and others who won't arrive on campus until June.
"I tell Donovan and Corey to meet after practice with me to work on their punches or steps," said Gary. "I see things that can make them great. I tell them, 'When you make mistakes, don't get down on yourself like I did. You're good.' And the talent still coming in is going to be great. I'm staying in touch with the defensive tackles coming in, too. They've got the playbook, and if they have any questions, they can come to me. I've been talking the most to Aubrey and James Hudson, a defensive tackle."
Gary, at 6-foot-5 and 287 pounds, is setting the bar quite high at Michigan. That 4.57-second dash was faster than the Wolverines' swiftest tailback, and better than the 4.64 run by 272-pound Myles Garrett, the Texas A&M defensive lineman most project as the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
"The fastest 40 I ever ran was at the Nike 'Opening' (showcase for top recruits)," said Gary. "I ran a 4.7 then. This 4.57 shows how the coaching staff has worked on my body and fine-tuned me with all these workouts. Coming here and getting the training was going to boost it up.
"But when I ran that 40, I was surprised myself. I looked at both clocks, and said, 'What?' They said, 'Yeah.' I was like, 'Wow.' "
I joked with Gary about possibly doing double-duty in the offensive backfield, and he said, "I am trying to get on offense a bit. I've voiced that. It would be cool."
Mattison is blown away by Gary.
"Rashan Gary acts like he's a senior," Mattison said. "He's tremendously talented with great character ... You'd never be able to tell the young man is going into his sophomore year."
What was Gary's reaction to hearing Mattison say that?
"That showed me how far I'd come since my freshman year -- from not really believing in my assignments and my ability," said Gary. "Now, entering my sophomore year, I know the plays. And because of what Taco and Wormley showed me last year, I know I have to be a leader now. I've taken on that role.
"I've come a long way, but I still have a long way to go."
Mattison won his trust in becoming more than just a coach.
"When I had little mess-ups as a freshman," said Gary, "Coach would just say, 'Go onto the next play.' He always had faith in me and never put me down. To this day, I might mess up, and he'll just give me that look. And I'll say, 'I've got you, Coach.'
"He showed me how to mature as a man, and stressing that when you make mistakes, just fix them. He's walking me through life."
Gary got considerable playing time behind a senior front four -- Charlton, Wormley, Ryan Glasgow and Matt Godin -- that was so good it could end up having four draft picks, with Charlton a certain first-rounder.
"I wanted to get to the level where all of them are," said Gary. "When I got here, Chris said, 'I'm going to get you ready to play.' He did a great job of taking me under his wings, and would take me aside after practice and say, 'I want you to work on this.' He helped me learn how to fix things."
Gary had been a monster as a high school senior, making 55 tackles with 13.5 sacks and forcing four fumbles. But the college game was so detailed and complicated that it required the humility to be willing to take a deep breath and learn.
"It got to the point where I felt I was letting my team down," said Gary. "They gave me a scholarship, and I owed it to the University of Michigan and the whole coaching staff. I took that personally because it's an honor to wear this helmet. Taco and Wormley both taught me that. They said, 'You wear this wing for the people who came before you and the people who came after you.'
"So, I took it to heart when I messed up. But both Taco and Wormley said, 'He's doing better than we did as freshmen.' That was something I kept in my head to keep on going."
Charlton got him to the root of assignment improvement.
"Big Brother-wise," said Gary, "I could talk to him about anything. Taco had an answer for any situation, and taught me how to hold myself to a certain standard. And he also brought more film into my life. I'm always watching film. I watch practice 10 or 15 times before we come to review it (with coaches).
"He also stressed having confidence. I was nervous when I started out, thinking I had so many people watching me. I'd never been on a stage this big before. Now, I'm knowing the assignments and what it takes."
That's led to the confidence.
That led to him being the No. 1 pick in the Spring Game draft -- just as Peppers had been.
"That was surprising," Gary said with a smile.
"Yeah," he insisted. "That was surprising.
"But I guess it shows how my hard work is coming along, and how the coaches view me. I took that to heart. It felt good."
He's well on his way to becoming the force everyone envisioned and is definitely making the two women tattooed on his arm quite proud.