New Jersey connection takes flight at Michigan

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jabrill Peppers

Ann Arbor – They’re everywhere it seems.

Michigan freshman defensive end Rashan Gary, the nation’s top recruit last year, was holding court with local media this week when some fellow New Jerseyans were heading out of the football building.

“Jersey!” they shouted to him.

In mid-sentence while answering a question, he laughed and looked their way, before completing his thought.

This is their week. The Jersey boys are going home.

Fourth-ranked Michigan plays at Rutgers on Saturday night, and the nine New Jersey players on the roster, in addition to New Jersey-native assistant coaches Jedd Fisch and Chris Partridge, are eager to play before friends and family.

“They’re really excited,” defensive lineman Matt Godin, a Michigander, said this week. “A lot of tickets being asked for from everyone.”

Offensive guard Kyle Kalis said the demand for tickets from the Jersey players has been so great, he resorted to rock, paper, scissors to determine who would get his.

The winner?

“Rashan,” Kalis said, laughing.

Jabrill Peppers, Michigan’s most well-known player and a triple-threat, played at Paramus Catholic, which is where Gary also played, as did Juwann Bushell-Beatty, who likely will start at left tackle against the Scarlet Knights. Partridge, their coach at Paramus Catholic, is now on Michigan’s staff as linebackers coach.

“(There are) a lot of talented guys in New Jersey,” Bushell-Beatty said. “I can say from first-hand experience I’ve played against a lot of talent there. There are a lot of guys who come out of there who are go-getters who are ready to go.”

While Chris Ash, the first-year coach at Rutgers, coined “Fence the Garden” as a program motto to encourage the top talent to stay home, many of New Jersey’s best were already long gone to programs like Michigan. And Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff maintained a presence in New Jersey over the summer by holding a satellite camp at Paramus Catholic.

Top talent is coming out of the state, and North Jersey offers the most fertile recruiting ground.

“Northern Jersey has the better brand of high school football,” Michigan defensive backs coach Mike Zordich said this week. “Some good ball up there for sure.”

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Why does the best football talent find its ways into pockets of certain states?

“Maybe just certain areas are tougher than others,” Zordich said. “The proof’s in the pudding. I’m not from Jersey, so I can’t compare anything. I just know where I lived in South Jersey (while with the Eagles) is a little different than some parts for North Jersey. It’s just what I see.”

The North Jersey players have a swagger.

“Oh, absolutely,” Zordich said. “They’re tougher kids.”

Fisch grew up in New Jersey – he’s more Bon Jovi Jersey guy than a Springsteen Jersey guy – but he wasn’t focused on high school football talent then like he is now.

“I can’t remember as many players that we have now in New Jersey,” he said. “I wasn’t looking at it the same way. But I feel like New Jersey football is really good. We’re just very involved in the recruiting of it, so that makes it fun.”

Rashan Gary

Having Partridge on staff has helped facilitate the New Jersey pipeline of players.

“There’s definitely a lot of them,” Kalis said, laughing.

As Gary explained, it’s such a small state that all the players seem to know each other. And when there’s a base of players at a school like Michigan, that makes it an easy landing spot for other Jersey guys.

“It makes me feel a lot more comfortable being here because there are guys I can relate to,” Bushell-Beatty said.

Rutgers was the first school that offered Gary, but as he became a hotter prospect, the other schools “fell off the list.”

Michigan signed six players from New Jersey last February.

When Ohio natives leave to play for Michigan, they hear plenty from those back home about the decision. Gary left Jersey but he never paid attention to any heat he might have been getting from people there.

“With my recruitment it was just me and my mom,” Gary said. “When stuff like that came my way, my mom used to block it from me. I really never got any of that. Maybe she did.”

Gary hopes to impress his friends and family when he gets on the field at High Point Solutions Stadium on Saturday night.

He said he continues to improve and is a much different player than he was when he arrived, and credited senior defensive linemen Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton for helping him evolve. He said he’s changed since he was, as he described, “Summer Camp Rashan.”

“It was a lot of frustration, because I don’t like messing up,” Gary said. “Taco and Wormley picked me up when I was having my bad days, and as it kept on going, I kept getting better and better. Right now, I can’t even compare the player I am now to when I first got here.”

And now he’s going home to show them how far he has come.

Jersey connection

Players from New Jersey on Michigan’s roster:

RB Joe Beneducci: The junior fullback has one carry carry. That was a one-yard gain in the season opener against Hawaii.

OL Juwann Bushell-Beatty: He’s expected to make his first start this week at left tackle in place of injured Grant Newsome. Bushell-Beatty filled in last week when Newsome went down.

DT Michael Dwumfour: Dwumfour, a freshman, played in the season opener and had two tackles.

OL Greg Froelich: The senior lineman from Maplewood has not played.

DE Rashan Gary: The nation’s No. 1 prospect for 2016 has 18 tackles this season, one sack, 4.5 tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries.

DE Ron Johnson: Johnson has not played this season.

LB Jabrill Peppers: Michigan’s three-way player slowly been working his way into the offense. He is fifth nationally in tackles for loss, averaging 1.9 a game, and he scored on a 54-yard punt return this season.

LB Cheyenn Robertson: The sophomore from Union City has not played.

RB Kareem Walker: Walker has had to focus on academics this fall and is expected to redshirt this season.