About halfway through Jalen Mayfield’s freshman season at Catholic Central High School, his coach, Todd Kolster, gave him a ride to the school’s athletic complex.
Mayfield had been on the JV squad, trying to get ready for an eventual call-up. Kolster knew Mayfield was gifted, and by that point, had a good idea of just how gifted. In the car, he told Mayfield that guys like him are different. Mayfield couldn’t approach things the same way, with the same goals, as everyone else, because his ceiling was higher and his potential unlimited. Kolster pulled Mayfield up to varsity and made him the starter that week.
It took Mayfield a while to get on the radar as a recruit. It took longer still for him to get noticed by Power Five schools and get offered by Big Ten schools, thanks to a smaller frame that belied what Kolster could see when Mayfield was just a freshman.
“You knew he was gonna be a good player,” Kolster told The Daily. “And then when he grew and his body, and you started seeing his athleticism as a freshman in high school, you’re like, OK, this isn’t like a normal — this isn’t even a mid-major, Division I guy. This is a guy that’s better.”
In less than two weeks, Mayfield will presumably make his first college start as Michigan’s right tackle. As a redshirt freshman, he’s the lone question mark on an offensive line that returns all four of its other starters from last year, with expectations to be among the best in the conference.
Up until last week, he was in the heat of competition with Andrew Stueber to earn that spot. In 15 spring practices, each started seven and in the spring game, they rotated, offensive line coach Ed Warinner said Monday. In fall camp, it was the same thing. At this rate, even though the Wolverines would have had to start one, Warinner said they likely would have played at something close to a 60-40 split in games.
“We were, just kept watching and watching to see if one guy would pull away or one guy would sneak up and then the other guy would catch him,” Warinner said Monday. “They were fighting it out, so it was pretty darn close.”
Then Mayfield won the competition by default.
Stueber went down last week with a leg injury. The timeline for his return is still unclear, but it seems it won’t be by the time Michigan kicks off against Middle Tennessee State on Aug. 31. Regardless of when Stueber is able to return, the job is now Mayfield’s to lose.
He’s familiar with the high-speed, no-huddle offense Josh Gattis will run from his high school days. Athleticism has always been Mayfield’s calling card — in part an offshoot of the weight issue that dogged him at the same time — and his high school tape features a player who makes up for any lack of size with momentum. Mayfield has since gotten his weight up to a reported 319 pounds, but remains agile.
“He's a lot stronger, so I think he can line up out of the huddle, come out of the huddle and try and base block and run power and all the same stuff that you want offensive linemen to do,” Kolster said. “But he also has the ability to run no-huddle, be able to move, be able to pull. He’s an excellent puller. He’s got a tremendous feel pulling up through a line, getting to the second level linebacker, getting out on the perimeter, pulling.
“He’s got a great feel. He’s got great balance, great feet to be able to get on those skill guys on the defensive side of the ball and get on him. And I think just the ability, some of the (Run/Pass Option) stuff in terms of climbing to different levels and that stuff, that’s just stuff he is naturally very good at.”
Kolster, as optimistic as you might expect a high school coach to be, said he sees Mayfield as an eventual first or second round pick in the NFL Draft. There’s still development that needs to happen, in particular working on his hands and punching ability in pass protection, but even in high school he had strong balance and good feet. He could always drive people off the ball, even when the strength lacked.
Now that seems to be less of an issue.
This is not to say that Mayfield will slot in seamlessly. Someone going from three games of limited snaps to starting at right tackle in the crucible of the Big Ten will, in most cases, struggle at least a bit. If nothing else, Mayfield is the least proven member of a line that returns four steady members, and thus the most vulnerable.
But nobody is anything but optimistic.
“Do I think he’s ready to be a starter at Michigan? Sure,” Kolster said. “From my knowledge and from what I know of Jalen, yes, no question. I think he’s gonna do outstanding.”
Additional reporting by Tien Le