Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Matt Charboneau look ahead to Saturday's showdown between the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor. Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Moving from quarterback to tight ends wasn’t exactly what Zach Gentry had envisioned when he got to Michigan.
But Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh saw Gentry as a natural fight at tight end, and the 6-foot-7, 244-pound redshirt sophomore made the move.
He admits it wasn’t something he immediately understood.
“Maybe not at first, but I do now,” Gentry said this week.
Gentry is coming off a Purdue game two weeks ago in which he scored his first career touchdown, a 12-yard pass from quarterback John O’Korn. So far this season he has six catches for 119 yards and it an obvious matchup problem for the defense.
The seventh-ranked Wolverines (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) face Michigan State (3-1, 1-0) at Michigan Stadium in a prime-time kickoff.
That Gentry is now the second-leading receiver among tight ends — just behind Sean McKeon who has 120 receiving yards — does not surprise the easy-going New Mexico-native.
“I worked really hard during the offseason, gained the weight I needed to gain,” Gentry said this week. “The athleticism was always there, but I just needed to piece it all together and really figure out the position through and through. There’s a lot of little things that take a long time to get used to, but once you get them down they become second nature.”
It was never his nature as a quarterback, obviously, to learn how to block. Besides adding weight and strength, working on this aspect of the game was a priority.
“Definitely blocking. Pass protection and blocking,” Gentry said when asked where he made big improvements in the offseason. “That was something that was completely new to me at first — I was pretty bad at it. I definitely think I’ve improved a lot in that area.”
Just how bad?
"It was completely foreign to me,” he said. “I was the guy in practice (as a quarterback) that you weren’t allowed to touch. Having to block Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley was …”
Michigan tight end Zach Gentry describes mood at practice ahead of Saturday's game against rival Michigan State. Angelique S. Chengelis
Gentry paused to laugh at the thought of facing those two current NFL defensive linemen.
“That was something that — I was pretty bad in just getting down, pad level and aggression and firing out. Those are things that take a while to get used to. It’s been a process.”
And sometimes the process was slow.
“It’s been tough,” Gentry said. “There have been a lot of things that go rough. Things go south. You have to keep getting back up and practicing harder every day.”
The tight ends have developed a strong on-field rapport with the quarterbacks, both Wilton Speight, who is injured and sidelined for several games, and John O’Korn, who will make his first start of the season Saturday night against MSU.
Wolverines tight end Zach Gentry on quarterback John O'Korn Angelique S. Chengelis
Gentry said O’Korn won’t miss a beat.
“We (the tight ends) have a strong chemistry (with O’Korn),” Gentry said. “Every day after practice, we stick around with the quarterbacks and get some extra balls and run some extra routes, so the chemistry is there. The tight ends, we’re a hard-working group and have a lot of guys who can contribute. We’re constantly rolling guys in and out, so as long as we keep working hard we’ll keep making plays for us.”
Because Gentry is from New Mexico, he obviously did not grow up in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. Back home it was all about the Rio Grande Rivalry between New Mexico and New Mexico State, but he was not unfamiliar with this rivalry.
“I was definitely aware of it,” Gentry said. “I used to wake up and because of the time change, the Michigan games were always the first ones on TV so I was aware of it. Always watched it growing up.”
His first experience was the game two years ago with the wild finish in the final 10 seconds that gave Michigan State the victory.
“We always practice pretty intensely, but there’s been a little different feeling in the air,” he said this week. “We’re flying around a bit more and hitting a little harder.”
While it’s the next game on the schedule, even those from out of the state know this is not just another game.
“There’s a lot of guys from the state of Michigan, so everybody knows it’s an important one for us,” he said.