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Michigan freshmen jump into fray

04/20/2017, 12:09am EDT
By By KYLE ROWLAND BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Early enrollees work to make immediate impact

ANN ARBOR — Adjusting to college is a difficult task.

Managing one’s time becomes the chief concern — finding space to attend class, study, and meet new friends is daunting, even with 24 hours in a day.

Imagine adding football to the equation. That’s what Michigan’s 11 early enrollees faced during the university’s winter semester.

“There are some kids that come in and they’re ready,” said offensive coordinator Tim Drevno. “Cesar Ruiz came in from IMG Academy. He’s lived away, he understands the regimen of waking up, going to class, going to study hall.

“But there are some growing pains. It’s part of the process of getting their feet wet in college. We’re like the Mother Hen, always double-checking on them and protecting them. They’re very important to us in this transition.”

Spring practice unfolded with few hiccups for the newcomers. In Saturday’s spring game, several incoming freshmen made an immediate impression. Benjamin St-Juste had an interception, Tarik Black caught a touchdown pass, Donovan Peoples-Jones created a buzz by simply emerging from the tunnel, Donovan Jeter and Jaylen Kelly-Powell combined for five tackles and one tackle for loss.

The sun-splashed day represented a new chapter for the future Wolverines. And if the past is any indication, not much will change when the games’ ramifications become more significant. In the 2016 season opener, Jim Harbaugh played 18 true freshmen.

“We’re asking all young guys to compete in first and second tiers,” said defensive coordinator Don Brown. “And they’ve all handled it really, really well.”

Instead of prom and fancy dinners, the 11 freshmen, who helped headline UM’s top-five recruiting class, are taking part in four-hour practices and, well, fancy dinners. Only they’re in Rome, not a suburban steakhouse.

“They’re so gifted, and yet so humble and so driven to get better,” quarterback Wilton Speight said about Black and Peoples-Jones, who play the position that’s received considerable attention dating to late March.

When your top pass catchers, including perhaps the nation’s best tight end, all matriculate to the NFL, it leaves a gaping hole in the offense.

Wide receivers were a priority in the 2017 recruiting class, and it doesn’t matter that Black and Peoples-Jones (and fellow incoming freshmen Nico Collins, Brad Hawkins, and Oliver Martin) have no college experience. Immediate production is craved.

The combination of being driven and humble — and the lack of arrogance — set off Speight’s radar. The duo possesses similar traits to Rashan Gary, the ballyhooed defensive lineman who entered Michigan last year as the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit. Coachability and accountability isn’t always a given in young talent.

Timing and chemistry, a must in the quarterback-wide receiver relationship, remains a work in progress. Still left are three practices in Rome and a summer-long boot camp at the School of Speight.

“They came in from high school after December and jumped right into it,” Speight said “I did that, so I know personally how challenging it is. Those guys hit the ground running, and they’ve shown the coaches what they’re capable of. What they did [Saturday] is a reflection of what they’ve been doing all spring.”

The 11-man gang altered their previous schedules after the new year, and as the academic calendar comes to a pause, a sense of normalcy has entered their newfangled existence.

Contact Kyle Rowland at: krowland@theblade.com, 419-724-6110, or on Twitter @KyleRowland.

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Michigan defensive back Benjamin St-Juste, right, interferes with receiver Tarik Black during Saturday’s spring game. Both players are true freshman early enrollees at UM. ASSOCIATED PRESS

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