Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson at center of revitalization

Aidan Hutchinson tapped his helmet.

It was his freshman year at Divine Child High School, and the JV team was playing at Lutheran North, 45 minutes northwest of his hometown of Plymouth, Mich. Hutchinson had just picked up a fumble and ran it back, “75 or 80 yards,” remembered Nick Ploucha, his JV coach. The helmet tap was a signal to ask for a breather. Ploucha shook his head no.

Hutchinson, at that time, was the team’s starting defensive tackle, offensive tackle, long snapper and played on kickoff, kick return and punt return. Ploucha needed him to snap the extra point, then to play on the kickoff. Hutchinson shrugged, then turned back toward the field.

“And that was kinda one of those, this-kid’s-gonna-be-special moments,” Ploucha said.

Ask around and the stories about Hutchinson roll in like waves. There’s the fourth-and-2 when he stopped on a dime, changed direction and stopped an opposing running back for a loss. There’s the kid he ran over after a catch while playing tight end in a game at Ford Field. The Army All-American Game, when he dominated the week of practice, then the game itself. The simple fact that he never — ever — wanted to come off the field.

Aidan Hutchinson
AP

“He was insistent that way,” said John Filiatraut, his varsity coach at Divine Child.

Hutchinson is putting together another set of fables this year at Michigan, where he was the program’s first Heisman Trophy finalist since Jabrill Peppers in 2016, won a list of awards, set the program’s single-season sack record, put himself in contention for the No. 1-overall draft pick and at the center of the program’s revitalization.

He used to talk about how his father, Chris — who played for Michigan from 1988-1992 — would tell him about beating the Buckeyes. A chance to do so was motivation to forego the draft and return to school after a disastrous 2020 season in which he suffered a season-ending injury. Now, Aidan has beaten Ohio State and more, proving a centrifugal force in the Wolverines’ first ever College Football Playoff appearance.

“I know that was always a goal of ours to beat Ohio State, to win a Big 10 championship,” Hutchinson said ahead of Friday’s matchup with Georgia. “But when you’re in the thick of it, when you’re in the meat and potatoes of everything, it’s hard to see that light at the end of the tunnel because it was dark there for a while, and it was just us grinding and grinding and getting after it and not knowing what was gonna happen, not knowing the outcome.”

Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson celebrates with the trophy after the Big Ten championship against Iowa, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Indianapolis.
Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson celebrates with the trophy after the Big Ten championship.
AP

It is easy to mistake his attitude for fake, his competitiveness for bluster. But the impact he’s had on the Wolverines, and on Divine Child before that, proves otherwise.

To back that up, Filiatraut says, you need to both work as hard as you say you do and be a great player. Hutchinson checked both boxes from Day 1. Ploucha remembers him beating out junior and senior linemen in 200-meter sprints the summer of his freshman year.

“Most kids refused to not be last,” Ploucha said. “He refused to not be first.”

With Hutchinson as a leading voice, Michigan went from rock bottom to the top of the sport. Divine Child went from roughly .500 to 10-2 and 10-3 in his two years as an upperclassman. There are other reasons for both. But Hutchinson is up there with any of them.

Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97) and linebacker David Ojabo (55) react after a game against Maryland, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in College Park, Md.
Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97) and linebacker David Ojabo (55) react after a game against Maryland.
AP

“He’s the kind of guy who drags people along with him,” Filiatraut said. “He’s got a way about him where he’s a natural leader. When he says ‘I’m coming back for my senior year and we’re gonna beat Ohio State or I’m gonna die trying,’ I feel like that sounds trite or that sounds corny to people. But people who know Aidan know that’s what he’s about. He set a goal, he worked at it and those other guys in that locker room took off after him.”

One who did would be David Ojabo, the Wolverines’ other game-wrecking linebacker. During the offseason, Ojabo told Hutchinson he’d be in his “hip pocket,” working with Hutchinson every day — an approach both he and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald credit for helping Ojabo’s breakout.

But really, Michigan’s entire defense has been shaped by Hutchinson’s approach.

“We want to be 11 guys playing for one another,” Macdonald said. “We want to have shocking effort when you watch the tape. We want teams to watch tapes on Sunday mornings and know they’re in for a 60-minute battle.

“Just proud of Aidan, man. He’s definitely the guy that spearheads that type of approach.”