Early-morning winter workouts were Nate Schoenle’s opportunity. He made a habit out of arriving early to practice and conditioning, staying late to get extra reps and spend more time studying the playbook.

After a particularly intense 6 a.m. conditioning session, Schoenle knew he had given it everything he could. And then he felt a pat on his back.

“Hey, you’re doing a great job,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

A walk-on wide receiver and a sophomore at Michigan, Schoenle’s path to Ann Arbor was decided for academic reasons. But his on-field growth has given him reason to believe he will be contributing to the football program in more ways than he may have originally expected.

Schoenle’s position group is stacked with young talent. Freshmen Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black were highly-touted recruits, with endless lists of scholarship offers. Sophomore Kekoa Crawford was a key addition from Harbaugh’s first recruiting class, and sophomore Eddie McDoom made an immediate impact during his freshman year — albeit as a jet-sweep specialist.

Schoenle, on the other hand, had no offers to play Division I football. He chose between a preferred walk-on spot with the Wolverines and an offer from Hillsdale (Mich.), a small Division II program.

Receiving playing time wouldn’t have seemed very likely for the then-incoming freshman, but as his freshman-year roommate pointed out, Schoenle had no intentions of giving up.

“(Schoenle) was my roommate last year, so I spent a lot of time with Nate,” Crawford said. “He’s just one of those dudes you learn from everyday. Something he does you can apply to your game one way or another.

“His work ethic is just crazy. I see him out here before practice, before anybody. He’s here after. He’s watching film. He does it all.”

Schoenle is trying to make his mark, and Crawford is confident he is going to.

When they weren’t in their dorm together, Crawford had the chance to watch Schoenle on the practice field. Schoenle took plenty of reps on the scout team his freshman year, and got to line up against former Michigan safeties Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis, both of whom are now in the NFL.

“I definitely improved a lot,” Schoenle said. “In the winter and the spring is when it clicked. I went from, ‘I’m on this team’ to ‘I think I can contribute if I really work my tail off.’”

Schoenle’s story is one of hard work— one of setting goals, and later meeting them. Most Michigan football players get recruited by major programs from an early age. Schoenle didn’t even make his high school’s varsity team until junior year. When he arrived in Ann Arbor, forcing his hand into the conversation to earn playing time seemed more like a pipe dream than reality.

“I wouldn’t have believed in me,” Schoenle admits. 

But last winter when Harbaugh gave him a few words of encouragement and a pat on the back, he saw another goal coming into fruition.

“To be acknowledged from the head coach, or from any coach, when you’re not in as high of a position as some of the other guys,” Schoenle said. “… that just motivates you to do more.”

Now, in one week, he’ll suit up for the Wolverines, and trot onto the field at AT&T Stadium, Cowboys Stadium, Jerry World. On a stage like that, all those extra reps after practice will finally pay off.

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