Freshmen have emerged as impact players in college football with increasing regularity over the last few decades. The positional exception to that rule has been offensive line. It still takes more time for youngsters to become mentally and physically mature enough to compete in the offensive trenches at the Power Five level. On the rare occasion that that happens, it almost never occurs at center. That position often has the added burden of making the line calls. A true freshman starting at that position would be truly exceptional.
It turns out that could be an apt description of Michigan freshman Cesar Ruiz. He is far from a sure bet for the job, but in just a few months in Ann Arbor as an early enrollee he has established himself as an option if the coaching staff moves Mason Cole elsewhere.
“I think (Ruiz) is really sharp,” said Michigan offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Tim Drevno. “He has been trained very well. Football is very, very important to him. He processes very well. He gets it. He could be a guy that could play center. He could play guard. He could even play tackle. He’s that kind of athlete. He’s an elite athlete, the way he moves and runs. I’d like to try and put him at the center spot and compete there. He is a guy that is so far with just what he has shown, he will be able to play as a true freshman.”
But at center? Really
“I believe so… or a guard spot,” Drevno replied. “He could play somewhere on that line. We do have to put pads on. I understand that. We have to do that in the spring and evaluate him there, but everything that he has shown, his maturity level, he gets it. He gets it. I know you said, ‘oh gosh center’… absolutely… the way you can teach in the room, the way they get to understand it and to be able to play fast, I think that we will be able to learn that and be able to play the center spot. He’s done it since a young age. He’s done it since he was probably in Pop Warner. Most the time in college football you’re getting a guy that has never played the center spot and you’re training the guy to play the center spot. This guy has done it. It is like riding a bike to him. He’s always had a ball in his hand and a guy breathing down his neck. He is able to do that absolutely.”
One luxury that makes Ruiz at center more of a palatable is a veteran signal caller like Wilton Speight. In his second year at the helm Speight could be charged with making line calls if Ruiz got the nod. That was a duty Andrew Luck took on for Michigan’s current crop of offensive coaches when they coached at Stanford.
“I think (that’s a possibility),” said Drevno. “Wilton growing another year in the system and things. And (Ruiz) is going to be farther along. And then (he’d have) veteran guys next to him if it is a situation.”
At this point that remains a huge “if.” Time will tell if the need for Cole is greater elsewhere on the offensive line. Time will tell if Ruiz can beat out another option in the middle.
“I failed to mention is Pat Kugler,” said Drevno. “Thankful that he came back. Glad he is here and he is a guy that can step in. Maybe he is the center. Maybe Mason Cole is outside. Maybe Cesar Ruiz is in a guard spot. I don’t know that. I’m putting the pieces of the puzzle together.”
Stay tuned to The Michigan Insider for more of our spring preview in the hours and days to come.