Rashan Gary had a successful, though hardly dominant, freshman year at Michigan.
Playing behind two future NFL defensive ends in Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton, he watched and learned, trying to soak in everything.
Now that they’re gone – along with eight other defensive starters – he was left with a mission: Fill the leadership void.
Five weeks ahead of training camp, Gary is doing it all.
“There’s no question Rashan Gary and Mo Hurst are leading the defensive linemen,” U-M defensive coordinator Don Brown said Friday. “It has nothing to do with age. It has everything to do with presence and command. Obviously he’s an extremely good player.
"When your extremely good players are the best players and the hardest-working, that makes it easy.”
Being a vocal leader is not Gary’s natural state.
But his effort and energy showed last week when he was working with and encouraging the younger participants at Michigan's camp. That demonstrated what he's like with his teammates.
“I feel like I’m able to give back to the kids what coaches gave to me,” Gary said. “And it helps me be a leader. That’s something new that I had to get used to. So I love going out there, showing kids what they do and what steps to take to make them better.
"Especially today when I see kids get down, (I say) ‘it’s alright, you came here to learn.’”
In the fall, the Michigan players will elect two of three season captains, usually seniors, one on each side of the ball.
But with such a smaller, unproven senior class, especially on defense with Mike McCray as the only returning starter, Gary has become a mentor as a sophomore, even if his leadership is not recognized with a title.
“It’s something I’m growing into,” he said. “I’m happy that now it’s easily flowing, I don’t have to force it.”
The freshmen already are appreciating what he’s done for them.
He’s drilling five-star newcomer Aubrey Solomon on the plays and then in the film room, because Solomon arrived in early June.
“He’s just different,” said Donovan Jeter, a freshman defensive end who enrolled in January. “He’s like 290 (pounds) and ran like a 4.5 during our mock pro day. He loves to compete, he’s a great leader, he works extremely hard in the weight room. When we’re on conditioning, he’s always first. He just sets the bar on how to be a great defensive lineman. He’s great with his hands. Since I’ve been here, I’ve never seen Rashan get knocked off the ball yet and we’ve got some really good offensive linemen.”
The trait was instilled by his mother as he was growing up in New Jersey, to be the standard and bring others along. But when he got to Michigan, he suppressed those instincts with so many seniors around.
Now that it’s his turn to lead, he’s letting them loose.
“We saw it in the spring,” U-M coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It was obvious in the winter workouts through the spring practices everyday, attacking it with a lot of energy and force. We’re in June, you hate to talk about it too much. But did I see it? Yes.
“Leadership can come from any grade.The class doesn’t matter. It’s the person. He does it the right way, it’s by example. It can’t be denied when something’s by example and it can’t be hidden.”
Age is not an issue for Harbaugh, who will embrace it from anyone and sees the desire in Gary, who seems to be making similar leaps on the field.
He spent time adding weight while “getting leaner than I am. Building speed. Besides that, I feel like I’m stronger than I was last year by a lot.”
The on-field stardom seems inevitable, given his talent and work ethic. But motivating his teammates as well? That’s a bonus.
“He’s a natural born-leader,” Solomon said. “He’s somebody you want to go into battle with. Because he’s not just one of those leaders that’s (not) just talking, He’ll show you. If he’ll mess up, he’ll take accountability for it. It’s just unreal, being that young and having all that talent and leadership.”