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When he’s not a Tootsie Pop or an extra terrestrial, Jake Ryan is a defensive playmaker

Erin Kirkland/Daily
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan fights his way into the Notre Dame backfield. Buy this photo

By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 9, 2012

If you listen to his teammates and coaches, Jake Ryan is many things. He’s been a skinny defensive back in high school and a sturdy outside linebacker at Michigan. He’s been called goofy and a free spirit, simultaneously a football savant and an airhead. He’s also a chocolate-filled lollipop.

Try to follow: On the field, the redshirt sophomore transcends positions. He chases down pass catchers in the flat and hounds quarterbacks. He can run with receivers and stuff running backs at the line. Ryan’s technique is flawed, Michigan coach Brady Hoke says, yet he makes fearless plays on the ball. He errs often and recovers nearly as often.

Off the field, Ryan is equally elusive.

“Jake Ryan, I don’t know how to explain him,” said senior quarterback Denard Robinson with a chuckle. “You just got to talk to him.”

Sophomore linebacker Desmond Morgan agreed. “Jake is Jake,” Morgan said, laughing. “I always make fun of him for being an airhead.”

Senior defensive end Craig Roh tried a metaphor. “He’s like a Tootsie Pop,” Roh said. “No matter how many times you talk to him, you really never know what you’re going to get until you get to the chocolatey center.”

Meaning what exactly?

“I don’t know,” Roh said. “You can’t describe him, really. He’s like, I don’t know, he’s like smart but dumb at the same time, but he’s also just random, just like, ‘Yo,’ randomly.”

Of course. Maybe Chuck Kyle, Ryan’s high school coach at St. Ignatius High School in suburban Cleveland, put it best. Kyle can’t put a finger on it, he says. Ryan’s just a free spirit.

During his high school years, Ryan had to be flexible. Ryan, like the other members of his football-playing family, didn’t develop until he was older. As a freshman, Ryan was too small for linebacker, so he played defensive back, where he honed his skills covering receivers in open space. Kyle also played Ryan as a fullback, filling the team’s need for a physical blocker, while also satisfying Ryan’s own desire to hit someone.

On Tuesday, Robinson said he thinks Ryan can play any position on the Michigan defense. He covers backs and tight ends or receivers in his zone just as well as he defends the run or pressures the quarterback.

Kyle coached Ryan’s father and two brothers, all of who played Division-I football — Ryan’s two brothers at Ball State and his father at Wake Forest (his maternal grandfather also played at Xavier). Ryan’s father and his older brother, Connor, played with a refined precision — a necessity since both lacked size. Yet with football in his blood, Ryan, the free spirit, plays on instincts.

“There were times when Jake would, maybe he had an inkling of something and he took off making some (wrong) play,” Kyle said. “He would recover and somehow get back, make the play, and you’d go, ‘How did he do that?’ ”

Ryan, though, didn’t get looks from major college programs because he was undersized. To compensate, Ryan toiled in the weight room and trained with the track team several times per week. At the end of his junior year, Ryan shot up past his father and brothers — he grew one and a half inches total that spring.

Adding size to his creativity, Ryan thrived, despite sometimes deviating from Kyle’s defensive scheme. Kyle described plays where Ryan read run, yet still intercepted a pass in the flat with a leap and a lunge.

Only after the play, after praising the result, would Kyle correct: “ ‘Actually, Jake, you were late doing that.’

“He was fearless about making (reads). I think you see that on the field at Michigan. This young man would go and attack. And sometimes that aggressiveness makes the play.”

At Michigan, teammates still marvel at Ryan’s ability to recover from breakdowns in technique. Morgan described plays where Ryan took a wrong route or an awkward angle on a blitz, but still chased down the quarterback. Against Purdue, Ryan forced a throwaway when he rushed quarterback Caleb TerBush, lept awkwardly at a pump fake, yet still regained his balance to make a hit.

The results are gratifying for his coaches, but the methods are exasperating.

“He was pretty doggone good,” Hoke said of Ryan’s performance against Purdue. Then he added one of his ultimate compliments: “He’s a football player.”

Yet Hoke insisted that “you want him to do it the right way. … There is a right way.”

Morgan, who as an inside linebacker practices separately from Ryan, said he often hears coaches yelling at Ryan. Roh said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison teases the easy-going Ryan constantly. The coaches tolerate his unorthodox approach because, Mattison said, he is eager to learn.

He is so eager to please that after graduating high school, he helped Kyle’s daughter move into her house after she had to move for her job.

“You ask, ‘Hey Jake, we really need you to do this,’ ” Kyle said. “That’s all he needed to hear, and he would just give his soul to do that for you.”

During the games, redshirt junior safety Thomas Gordon said Ryan is a different person, “an animal.” Film study, though, can be comical, Ryan’s football knowledge notwithstanding.

“We’ll be watching tape and he’ll look like he’s in Africa and not in the room with you,” Roh said. “He knows the defenses really well. He runs them well. He knows how to do that, but he has this thousand-yard stare, he looks like he’s literally on Jupiter.”

So add that to the list. Jake Ryan: unorthodox defensive play-maker, Tootsie Pop, extra-terrestrial.

“He’s got his own niche in the world,” Kyle said.

And at Michigan, too.