Returning to Michigan wasn't an easy call for Chase Winovich
It was a 60-second FaceTime chat, short and sweet, but long enough for Chase Winovich to, even a week later, feel emotional about conversing with Conor McGregor, the Irish UFC fighter he has long admired and often quotes.
Winovich, entering his final season at Michigan after struggling with the decision to stay or leave for the NFL, said he went through a number of “channels” before that one-minute FaceTime meeting.
“It was just a cool, really cool experience,” Winovich said at Big Ten media days last week. “I’ve always been a huge admirer of how he approaches things. It was special. It was quick, but we said a lot.
“I started off saying how much respect I have for him. I get goosebumps thinking about it. He goes, 'It goes both ways, brother,' and that was cool.”
And then McGregor gave Winovich the ultimate endorsement.
“He said he respects me,” Winovich said. “I told him how he’s a beast and he said I’m going to be a beast this fall. Take that for what it’s worth. That is his blessing.”
Winovich and fellow Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary want to be beasts this season. Gary, in particular, has spoken repeatedly about talking to Winovich about returning so they can be the best ends in the country.
It wasn’t an easy decision for Winovich.
He was first-team All-Big Ten as voted by the media and second team by the coaches after last season, and he was given the team’s Blue Collar Award. Winovich had 79 tackles, including 18 for loss, eight sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Following Michigan’s bowl game loss and 8-5 season, Winovich remained undecided about his immediate future. He didn’t travel with the team from Tampa to Ann Arbor after the game. He hadn’t moved out of his house, but his bags were packed with everything he needed to head to California, where he would train for the NFL Draft.
“I literally didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said.
There was some just-after-the-game soul searching that would continue as he discussed his decision with family and friends.
“After the bowl game, I was in the locker room and one part of me was angry that we lost and it was kind of like, ‘This is my window to get out. It’s been real,’” he said. “I had left it out there, there’s nothing more I can do to finish this thing I started. As time went on, my brother-in-law Dean gave me great advice. He said, ‘Chase, I know you’re struggling trying to decide what to do, but whatever decision-making skills you used to decide to come to Michigan, apply that to what you’re dealing with now.’
“For me, that was probably the best piece of advice I got going through it, because it became really easy after that. I said, ‘I followed my heart to get to Michigan and I’m going to follow my heart whether to leave.’ It was apparent to me I wasn’t ready to go and my time at Michigan hadn’t come to a conclusion yet. I get messages thanking me for coming back to Michigan, which were weird to me because I feel like it’s my honor. I’m the one that should be thanking for the chance, and that’s sincere.”
In December, before the bowl game, Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson was considering Michigan as a transfer destination. He would eventually join the Wolverines and, after a rigorous transfer waiver process, is eligible to play this fall.
Winovich has spoken bluntly about the offensive issues last year. Michigan’s offense hasn’t come close to matching the defense, which has been, under coordinator Don Brown, consistently ranked among the top in the country. Winovich hasn’t revealed any secrets, since the offensive stats are in plain sight, but they were part of his inner debate about returning.
Enter Patterson, who had been a starter at Ole Miss until a knee injury sidelined him after the midway point last year. Patterson was the nation’s top quarterback recruit in 2016.
“I went to Shea, ‘Hey man, you come to Michigan, and I’ll come back,’” Winovich said. “We had a dialogue back and forth. He had no idea if he was going to be eligible. It was definitely important for me. It was one of the aspects, making sure the offense made some improvements. I was convinced in that.”
Winovich has been zeroed in on one thing this offseason – football.
“My main focus was being a football player,” Winovich said when asked what he has done this summer. “I played a lot of video games in the winter just because I was bored, I guess. I took a step back from everything else and tried to focus on my mind and my body and being the best leader I could to our team. There’s a lot of positives.”
Leading by example
He also has flexed his leadership muscles.
“I’ve definitely done a better job this summer,” he said. “I knew in winter, I knew we had to keep taking gradual steps in the right direction. I’m pretty vocal on the field, but I try to lead by example in whatever I’m doing. If I’m in workouts, I try to be first in everything, just competing, just increasing the intensity. More my style is being out there in front of the guys and pushing them. It was kind of that way this year, too, just constantly motivating them. We’re not a cheerleading team. There’s only so much words you can say to somebody to get them motivated. You’ve got to motivate yourself and take care of your business.”
The players will vote on captains before the season, and Winovich doesn’t shy from saying how much it would mean to him to earn that coveted role.
“Captain would be a great,” Winovich said. “It’s something I aspire to. It’s something that’s definitely on the list of things I would like to do. I think I would be a great representative of Michigan if my teammates chose me to do so just because I’ve been there.
“As a fifth-year senior, I’ve seen a Michigan team that hasn’t made a bowl game, and I’ve seen a Michigan team that that was a couple inches away from making the college football playoffs. I’ve played in a lot of those games. I would be honored and humbled to represent the team, but if they ultimately think someone else would be better, you can’t be bitter about it. At the end of the day, my role as a leader doesn’t really change whether I get a title or not."
Michigan’s camp opens Friday in preparation for this season, which kicks off Sept. 1 at Notre Dame. Winovich hasn’t looked back after making his decision to return.
He has some natural concerns, but his focus is forward.
“It definitely doesn’t wander now,” Winovich said of his thinking. “You can’t look back, but this is frank, I’m scared I will if something, God forbid, happens in the season and I get hurt. That’s the only thing that kind of scares me. You can’t be scared at the end of the day. Injuries happen. It’s football. It’s a violent game.
“I’m going to enjoy the process. I don’t look back. I don’t regret. I don’t see people making money and go, ‘I could have done that right now.’ That’s not the way I look at it.”
He looks at it as being a "beast" this fall. Just as Conor McGregor told him.