Niyo: Freshmen early to rise for Wolverines

John Niyo, The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — They’re asking a lot, these coaches. And the answers aren’t always there. That’s a given in spring practice, and particularly with freshmen in college football, no matter how many stars the recruiting analysts have given them.

Take Ben Mason, the least-heralded linebacker in Michigan’s incoming freshman class, who also happens to be the biggest of the bunch. There he was Saturday, more than a month shy of his 18th birthday, making his debut before a crowd of 57,418 at the annual spring game and trying not to get lost in the crowd as he manned the middle linebacker position.

“I mean, if you looked in his eyeballs, there’d be water in there, because he’s swimming,” chuckled Don Brown, the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator. “It’s not an easy deal.”

Yet he has managed to stay afloat, flashing signs of the physical presence he might become. Meanwhile, things appear to be going swimmingly for some of his fellow classmates. Of the 11 early enrollees from the 2017 recruiting class, eight played in Saturday’s spring game, and nearly all of them made a play or two that impressed the coaches.

And while that doesn’t necessarily mean much, it just might mean a little something more for the Wolverines this fall. Given all the departures from last year’s top-10 team — 17 starters, give or take — the underclassmen will have to be more than simply role players. And Jim Harbaugh and his staff will be counting on a handful of true freshman, at least, to be contributors as well.

By all accounts this spring, they look capable.

“Those are young, young guys and we’re asking them to compete in first- and second-tiers,” Brown said, “and they’ve all handled it really, really well.”

Sharp on the corners

He singled out most of his defensive newcomers for praise Saturday, starting with his young secondary. His two starting cornerbacks will be sophomores in David Long and LaVert Hill, but freshman Benjamin St. Juste grabbed an interception Saturday, Ambry Thomas “is everything I thought he’d be,” Brown said, and Jaylen Kelly-Powell, who has played both strong safety and nickel corner this spring, showed some of his versatility with a nice open-field tackle for loss.

Wojo: Fresh faces flash promise for Michigan's 'D'

"Obviously, there’s so much to learn as a young player the first time you come and play in front of an audience. It’s just different. I think it was an important task that we did it."

On offense, the freshman are even easier to find. Or at least that’s the hope, certainly, as quarterback Wilton Speight lost his top three targets from a year ago. What he gained, though, was one of the nation’s top recruiting hauls at the receiver position.

And while Donovan Peoples-Jones, the centerpiece of this class, didn’t have a big day Saturday, he has wowed everyone with his athleticism and his attitude since arriving on campus in January. (“He’s really serious about being good,” Harbaugh said last week.) And he did show he could beat press coverage and get open on an out route a couple times. Tarik Black, meanwhile, enjoyed a productive second half, finishing with a team-leading four catches for 50 yards and a touchdown, beating St. Juste on a fade route late in the fourth quarter.

University of Michigan receiver Tarik Black is tackled during second-quarter action by Tyree Kinnel.

“DPJ and Tarik showed what they’re capable of today, and they’re only gonna get better from here,” Speight said. “They’re so gifted, but also so humble and driven to get better. That’s the best combination you can have.”

Center mass

Playing behind a variety of makeshift offensive line combinations, Speight spent much of the afternoon testing out his lighter, more-mobile frame as he tried to elude free rushers in the backfield. That’ll be the biggest question mark heading into to fall camp, but one answer on the line may come from freshman center Cesar Ruiz, who was the nation’s top recruit at his position coming out of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

His arrival has allowed the coaching staff to shift last year’s starting center, Mason Cole, back to left tackle where he started as true freshman. And Cole, not coincidentally, is among those raving about Ruiz and his 320-pound presence.

“He’s got a lot of passion for the game,” Cole said Saturday. “And it’s just in his blood — being a football player is in his blood. Things you can’t teach, they just come naturally to him.”

He looked like a natural fit for much of Saturday’s game, too, helping to spring Karan Higdon for a pair of touchdown runs while splitting the bulk of the center snaps with fifth-year senior Patrick Kugler.

“Running this offense is extremely complicated from the quarterback standpoint, and the quarterback of the offensive line is the center,” Speight said. “So to be able to make calls and when people are running around and there’s shifts and everything, he keeps his composure and stays calm and makes all the calls.”

Oh, and then there’s the other thing that stands out with Ruiz.

“He’s also huge,” Speight laughed.

So that helps. And it’s intriguing, no doubt, to contemplate an interior blocking tandem of Ruiz alongside 360-pound sophomore Michael Onwenu. It’s also conceivable another freshman could end up a starter on that line at some point, with tackles Chuck Filiaga and Andrew Stueber both arriving this summer.

Michigan offensive line starting to take shape

But as everyone rattled off thoughts about the other early enrollees Saturday — defensive end Donovan Jeter “really exceeded expectations of mine,” Brown added — this much was clear: The freshmen came to play.

“They came in with the same hunger we did,” said Rashan Gary, last year’s No. 1 overall recruit and a player everyone expects to have a dominant sophomore season. “They’re fighting for a starting spot, learning the playbook, making corrections. You see that every day. And I love seeing that.”

The coaches do, too.