Michigan debutants delight in contributing right away

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News


Ann Arbor — They are young. They are freshmen. And they’re here to play.

There is a youth movement in the Michigan football program, and coach Jim Harbaugh, as he showed in the season opener against Hawaii last Saturday, has no problems playing freshmen.

Michigan running back Chris Evans keeps the ball away from Hawaii defensive back Jamal Mayo in the first half.

In the Wolverines' 63-3 rout of Hawaii, 18 true freshmen, including 16 scholarship players, got in the game. Running back Chris Evans took advantage of his playing time, scoring two rushing touchdowns and became the third freshman in program history to rush for 100 or more yards in his debut.

“It just shows there’s really no favorites, it’s whoever is the best on the field will play,” sophomore receiver Grant Perry said Monday when asked about the large number of freshmen who played. And that’s a great thing, because a lot of players want to play early and want to get that experience. I know that really helped me playing all last year. That’s just a great thing he’s doing. I think it really benefits the player.”

Perry caught the first touchdown pass of the game from Wilton Speight, and sophomore Grant Newsome, who gained starting time as a freshman on the offensive line about midway through last season, started at left tackle.

Like Perry, Newsome appreciates the fact that if you’re a freshman and you want to play, no one holds you back from working your way toward that goal.

Newsome said he didn’t know which way things would go for him last season. Would he redshirt? Would he play? They finally approached him.

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“They said I should play, and I said, ‘Yes, please,’” Newsome said of playing as a freshman. “It was a big boost of my confidence knowing they were confident in me.

“It’s great to play under a coach where you know if you’re the best at your position, you’re going to play. I think that’s how it should be. It should be a meritocracy. A lot of programs you see, players won’t start until their redshirt junior or redshirt sophomore years at the least. It’s a great system where if you’re the best at your position you’ll play no matter what age you are.”

Harbaugh has made it clear that youth is not a limiting factor when it comes to playing. He said getting so many on the field last week was “tremendous for morale.”

“It’s a meritocracy on who plays,” he said. “By your effort, by your talent, you will be known.”

Harbaugh has the freshmen in a separate locker room during the season. It’s exactly the same as the varsity locker room, only smaller in dimension minus a few benches.

He has several reasons for doing this, namely the age difference between a freshman and a senior and fifth-year seniors. And he also wants the freshmen to bond and develop something lasting that will carry them through their careers as they become the senior leaders.

“Honestly, I was just happy to be in a locker room at Michigan,” Perry said, drawing laughter when asked about the separate rooms. “I really got to know all the freshmen really well, and all the walk-on. It was cool.”

And now, members of the sophomore class have been mentors to the new players. Perry guided the three freshmen receivers and took Nate Johnson under his wing.

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Jedd Fisch, the quarterbacks/receivers coach, calls it a buddy system.

“When we traveled to the hotel (last) Friday, (Fisch) was telling Nate, ‘Don’t leave his side. Stay with him. Don’t be late to the meeting,’” Perry said. “(Johnson) followed me around Friday night and Saturday morning, and he got a free pass to come into the varsity locker room.”

Senior defensive lineman Ryan Glasgow joked about hearing Harbaugh recently mention that the team’s “competitive waters have been almost boiling.”

He said that’s absolutely been true and that the message has been clear to the veterans — don’t play hard and a young player, even a freshman, may take your spot.

Glasgow said if he had played as a freshman he would have had the classic “deer-in-headlights” look, but he said this group handled the opener well.

“When you go through a coach Harbaugh-led football camp you are more prepared for a football season, and I think that showed up on Saturday with the freshmen stepping in and doing a great job for the most part across the board,” said Glasgow, adding that highly decorated freshman recruit Rashan Gary played “fast” and attacked his opportunity “head on”. 

“The coaching staff we have now is amazing at explaining concepts to all the players. I think they picked it up ridiculously fast. And nowadays, our extra summer stuff helped, going through plays with them. Senior-led workouts helped a lot — we really didn’t do much of that when I was a freshman — so top to bottom, I think we’re doing a better job teach in the program, and it’s showing up on the field.”

angelique.chengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis