Ann Arbor -- There was a time long ago, before Jake Ryan had become Michigan’s best linebacker, that he would sit in his northeast Ohio home for hours playing video games.
Oh, he can still go back to that place. Give him some rare spare, uninterrupted time when he’s all alone, and he can play for hours.
“My mom thought I was going to be no one because I played video games all the time,” Ryan said, laughing.
Things are different these days.
“Now she’ll offer to buy them for me,” he said.
Ryan is too busy for video games now, while he’s preparing for his final season at Michigan -- though he admits he has, on occasion, squeezed in a little golf this summer.
But the bulk of his time and effort has been spent on transitioning to middle linebacker, a role that is expected to take advantage of his instincts and athleticism -- and his inherent desire to hit.
Much earlier in his football career, Ryan was a receiver, like his father, who played at Wake Forest.
“I just hated it,” Ryan said. “You run a route and then you’re done. You don’t get to hit anyone.”
Bigger, stronger in middle
Ryan, a captain last year, wasn’t full-throttle in 2013, despite making a determined rapid return in the middle of the season from a torn knee ligament suffered in the spring. Still, he was voted Michigan’s top linebacker for the second straight year.
The defense this season is deep and the personnel experienced. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is looking for a more aggressive, blitz-heavy approach, and with that as his focus, he moved Ryan to middle linebacker in the spring.
“The reason I moved Jake to the middle, you want him on the field all the time,” Mattison said. “You’re playing so many spread teams, and we tried to play our base people against spread offenses just to keep Jake out there. That’s not fair to a guy like Jake. He’s a 240-pound linebacker playing out on a wide receiver. Your next thing is to put a nickel in, and where do you put Jake? Well, Jake now becomes a defensive end. He’s a 240-pound defensive end when you want to be bigger there.
“We wanted to get a bigger, stronger guy in the middle. We felt that was a right place. And one of the better blitzers on our team is Jake. It’s a lot easier to blitz from the middle than way outside.”
Desmond Morgan has played weak-side and middle linebacker for Michigan and said Ryan’s transition has been seamless.
“Linebacker is linebacker for him, and he’s just kind of grabbed onto that,” Morgan said. “He’s a natural football player, so pretty much any position you put Jake, he’s going to grab on and run with it. Wherever he’s at, he’s going to make a lot of natural football plays.
“He’s done a great job so far (transitioning). He’s done a lot of things, asked questions about things maybe Joe (Bolden) or I have done before. He’s been really willing to learn, and he’s learned very quickly.”
Instead of playing video games, Ryan has spent countless hours studying his film from spring practice and watching film of former Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
“He was a guy who just knew what was coming to the defenses,” Ryan said. “I’ve heard stories he’s called out 20 plays in the row from the other team, and that’s kind of what I want to do, get to that point.”
Mattison, after Michigan coach Brady Hoke made an overhaul of the defensive coaching assignments before the spring, is now coaching the linebackers. His eyes light up when he talks about Ryan, and the other coaches have taken to calling him Ryan’s “dad.”
“The guy knows football in and out,” Ryan said of Mattison. “Film work, technique, even off-the-field stuff, like how to talk to people, from introducing yourself to everything else. He’s been a great role model. All the coaches have been, but him especially. He was my position coach the first year, and sometimes he wanted to murder me and sometimes he wanted to congratulate me. I guess he’s a second dad, because that’s exactly what my dad does.”
Unorthodox no more
Plenty has changed for Ryan since his arrival at Michigan, aside from his linebacking responsibility. He no longer has his blond Clay Matthews-like mane, and he has shaken, for the most part, the description Hoke and Mattison had given him in 2011.
Both would talk admiringly of Ryan’s play but also added that he had an “unorthodox” style. Yes, Hoke would say, Ryan would get results, but the coaches wanted him to become more technically sound.
“I learned a lot over these past three years I was called that -- I never took that as a negative,” Ryan said. “I definitely play with instincts, but I think I’ve become more of a technician with everything.”
While the long locks are gone, Ryan has maintained his stylish ways. He is a fashion connoisseur and takes pride in his hipster styling. In his free time he likes to go skeet shooting and finds golf a relaxing break from the football grind.
Teammates say he is a unique individual away from the field. Senior quarterback Devin Gardner smiled broadly when asked to describe Ryan.
“Jake Ryan is a very weird character,” Gardner said, laughing. “He’s very hard to describe. He’s a different guy. He’s a very sarcastic person. You really don’t know when he’s serious. But when he gets on the football field, he is a man. I could care less what he does off the field. He’s very hilarious off the field, but when he gets on the field, it’s all business.
“And he’s really good at running into people.”
Ryan laughed when told what Gardner said. He also didn’t argue with the description.
“I am pretty weird,” Ryan said. “Nobody really understands my personality. I’m not crazy sarcastic, but I like to screw around.”
But when it comes to this, his final season, Ryan is completely serious.
He has not started to think about the final go-around of his college career. Instead, Ryan is focused on being the best middle linebacker he can be and, more importantly, the best leader.
Coming off a seven-win season last year, Ryan was among the first to adopt the move-on mentality. Now, this season is his last to help return Michigan to Big Ten championship contention.
“Looking back on that season, I think guys know,” he said. “I think this is going to be a different year for us.”
And the difference just may be the guy in the middle of the defense.
College Football Preview
Monday: Michigan State
Wednesday: Top 25 / nation
Thursday: Big Ten
Friday: State colleges