Some days, I feel bad for Rashan Gary. Ranked the No. 1 prospect in the 2016 class, Gary is not responsible for the hype that follows everything he does. In my opinion, he’s probably been a solid B to B+ player for the Wolverines during his 2+ seasons in Ann Arbor.
He hasn’t been dominant, but then what is dominant?
In the 2013-16 recruiting classes, there have been 16 defensive linemen ranked among the Top 10 players nationally, per 247Sports.com. Those 16 have averaged 16.1 tackles for loss and 7.3 sacks three games into their junior year.
Gary has 18 tackles for loss and seven sacks three games into his junior campaign. He ranks sixth among those 16 players in TFL. That puts him in the upper third. Is that good enough? Depends who you ask.
Folks probably expected more – like matching Myles Garrett, who as the No. 2 recruit in the 2014 class put up 36 tackles for loss and 25.5 sacks three games into his junior season.
But, there are others that have fared much worse than Gary, like No. 1 in 2013 Robert Nkemdiche of Ole Miss, who had 12.5 tackles for loss and just 3.5 sacks three games into his junior year.
From all indications, Gary is a terrific ambassador for the Michigan football program. He’s a likeable kid that gives tremendous effort. He cares deeply about winning (go watch his reaction following U-M’s loss to Michigan State in the Amazon Prime series that debuted this past summer).
Reportedly, Gary is played a little banged up this year, though no one from Michigan will confirm that. He’s not making excuses for a slow start, statistically – the junior end has only one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss (though he does rank second on the team with seven QB pressures) – and frankly, he doesn’t need to. Watch the film, and it’s clear he’s impacting more than numbers.
I will say this, it’s dangerous to throw out generalizations that explain Gary’s relatively low stats. For instance, one of the common themes is that Gary is double teamed more than any other player on the Wolverines.
Admittedly, I did not go back and watch each of the first three games (or every game he’s played in), but I did watch every defensive snap of the SMU game. By my count, Gary played 46 snaps and was double teamed on six of them (13.0 percent). Fifth-year senior Chase Winovich played 51 snaps and was double teamed on seven (13.7 percent).
Fans also like to say that teams “run away” from Gary, thus limiting his opportunities to make stops behind the line of scrimmage. The Mustangs did this some, but not overwhelmingly, attacking the opposite side of the defensive line on 4 of 19 defensive snaps Gary saw against a rushing attempt (21.1 percent).
Again, I only charted two players so this is not perfect science, but for Winovich, SMU ran away from him on 6 of 22 reps (27.3 percent).
In total, SMU doubled teamed, rolled the pocket away or ran away from Gary on 28.3 percent of the snaps he played last weekend. The Mustangs doubled, rolled the pocket or ran away from Winovich on 35.3 percent of his defensive snaps.
In other words, I’d drop that argument if you’re trying to justify Gary’s numbers – especially when you consider Winovich is more productive, with 6.5 tackles for loss this year among 21 total stops.
I came into the year with Winovich ahead of Gary on my list of Michigan’s best players. I still have him there. Gary will get drafted higher – he’s viewed as a likely Top 10 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft while Winovich is seen as a second- or third-rounder – but in college, the elder Wolverine has outperformed Gary so far.
I also said that for me, Gary needed to deliver in the way in which greats like Brandon Graham (2006-09) and LaMarr Woodley (2003-06) did during their careers. After all, they were the most feared players on their defenses too and received plenty of attention from opposing offenses.
But here’s the thing, three games into their junior seasons, Graham and Woodley weren’t that much better than Gary. Graham had two fewer tackles for loss (16) but four more sacks (11). Woodley, bouncing between defensive end and outside linebacker, had six more TFL (24) but the same number of sacks (seven).
Other five-star defensive linemen, like Gabe Watson (2002-05), Marques Slocum (2007) and Will Campbell (2009-12) didn’t come close to matching Gary. Watson was the best of three, but had just two tackles for loss three games into his junior season.
It’s too early to pass judgment on Gary’s career – let’s see how he performs the rest of the year – but Graham did ball out as a junior. He finished with 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Woodley had 12 tackles for loss and six sacks playing outside linebacker. He would match the Michigan single-season sack record with 12 as a senior.
Unfortunately, we’ll likely never see a senior year from Gary, which expedites expectations because he must pack a career’s worth of accomplishments into three seasons.
What we’re waiting for from Gary is a signature run – don’t sleep on the fact that the best game of his career was against Ohio State last season, when he had two sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss among 11 stops – it just hasn’t happened yet. His best four-game stretch was five tackles for loss against the likes of Indiana, Penn State, Rutgers and Minnesota in 2017.
There’s still plenty of time for Gary, but it also might be time to dial back expectations that he will match Garrett or Houston’s Ed Oliver (see chart).
It’s up to you to decide how you view Gary and his career, but I watch the film every week, and what I see is a player that makes a difference. He doesn’t get home enough, and we should get rid of the “double team” and “run away” from him talk because that diminishes his actual play.
Gary has been very good in 2+ seasons. Not yet great. I’m hopeful he’s ready to bust out, and we look back after the 2018 season rightfully putting him in conversations with Graham and Woodley because he’s earned the right to be there.