Michigan offensive lineman talks about his spring regimen and his return to center after playing at guard his freshman season. Angelique S. Chengelis
Ann Arbor — After the very first day of spring practice, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh made clear that sophomore-to-be Cesar Ruiz would be in the middle of everything.
Literally. As the starting center.
“Is Cesar going to be one of our best five?” Harbaugh said referring to the offensive line. “I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
Ruiz, rated the No. 1 center in the 2017 recruiting class, gained valuable experience last season as a freshman starting six games at right guard. While he said it was “weird” not having the ball in his hands, he had no qualms playing guard and being a starter. Now, with center Patrick Kugler a Michigan grad assistant, Ruiz has slipped back into the role he has always occupied.
“When I moved to guard, I never stopped snapping,” Ruiz said Tuesday night after practice. “I always knew how to snap, been doing it my whole life. I think I was really born to play center. That’s just something that comes natural to me.”
That’s evident to new offensive line coach Ed Warinner.
“He’s young, but man is he going to be really good here,” Warinner said last week. “He understands football very well, and he’s powerful. Plays with a good base. Quick feet, too.”
Ruiz is young, but with about a half-season of starts and a strong command of the playbook, he has quite naturally embraced taking over the offensive line and making the calls.
“One of the things he’s been outstanding at is helping direct traffic,” Warinner said. “Your center makes a lot of calls in there that set your protections. And if he sets them wrong, then you got problems. If he sets them right, then you can account for everybody.
“He’s been very good at that this spring. Very good.”
Warinner spent last season at Minnesota but before that coached at Ohio State where he was credited with developing strong offensive lines and NFL starters.
That resume is something Ruiz knew well when Warinner arrived at Michigan earlier this year.
“The guys he developed were the guys I looked up to in high school,” he said, smiling.
Already, Warinner believes Ruiz can become one of those players he looked up to.
“He has that kind of ability one day to get to that point,” Warinner said. “Not yet. I mean, he’s just a young kid, but if he keeps going — I know what they look like. I’ve coached them. He can be really, really good here.”
To that end, Ruiz said he has improved overall, including technique, learning his assignments and being a leader on the offensive line that also returns Ben Bredeson, who will be a third-year starter at left guard. Michael Onwenu, who started at right guard last year before an injury held him out, that allowed Ruiz to step in, also is expected to start this fall. Ruiz said Onwenu has been impressive this spring.
Ruiz said he has worked hard in the offseason to take the next step.
“Just taking everything I did last year and just stepping it up a little bit,” he said. “Last year, I spent a lot of time learning the playbook and working on my technique. This year I worked on it even more, staying back after hours sometimes with the quarterbacks going over film. Calling coach Kugler sometimes at night just in case I need some help with things just making sure I have everything down and make sure I know all my assignments.”
He said he’s doing everything he can to “master” the playbook.
“I’m studying the playbook every night,” Ruiz said. “I don’t have it down 100 percent perfectly, but I’ve got my hands on it pretty well. I’m still trying to make sure I have everything down 100 percent.”
He said he’s taking equal snaps with the quarterbacks — Shea Patterson, Brandon Peters, Dylan McCaffrey are the three primary contenders — but Patterson was his quarterback at IMG Academy.
“It’s fun,” Ruiz said of playing with Patterson again. “Sometimes we kinda forget we were teammates in high school. You don’t really think about that much. It’s fun having him back there again. He’s still a good player, I can tell you that.”
The offensive linemen have said Warinner has given the group a new take on playing the position, but their determination to be better was set in motion the day after their loss in the New Year’s Day Outback Bowl. That came from themselves.
They have heard repeatedly the line is the weak link of the offense and team, and they’re tired of it.
“You don’t like hearing that as an offensive lineman everybody blaming everything on you, that’s not something you want to hear,” Ruiz said. “When you keep hearing it, you keep hearing it, you keep hearing it, you know it just motivates you. It’s like, ‘They’re not going to say that about us this year, I can guarantee that.’ That’s our mindset. They’re not going to point fingers at us.”
Bredeson spoke last week of the line having a swagger. Ruiz said that started on Jan. 2.
“We realized we were tired of everybody pointing fingers at us and it was time to turn up,” he said. “We made it a goal this year, nobody is going to point fingers at us. We’re going to be one of the best O-lines around.
“This year compared to last year, we’ll stand out more as an offensive line.”
And Ruiz expects to be in the middle of it all.
Michigan spring game
Kickoff: 5:45 p.m. Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: BTN/97.1 FM (coverage begins at 7 p.m.)
Notable: Gates open at 4:45 p.m. and at 5 p.m. an episode of the Amazon Prime video series “All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines,” will be shown on the video boards.