The first time Daylen Baldwin jumped up to touch the banner at Michigan Stadium, the tradition prompted a moment of reflection. Baldwin, the Michigan football team’s newest wide receiver, took a figurative and literal step back as the last few years of his life came into focus.
“It was a happy (feeling),” Baldwin, a senior, said Tuesday. “I felt like this is somewhere I belong. I felt a sense of belonging, like I’m exactly where I need to be.”
That wasn’t always the case. A native of Southfield, Mich., Baldwin began his career at Morgan State in 2017 as an unranked recruit. The 6-foot-2 wideout struggled to post the big games that would attract interest from Power Five teams, racking up just 30 catches for 333 yards and two touchdowns across 22 appearances.
“Just being consistent when things aren’t going your way, when you don’t know what the next day is going to hold,” Baldwin said. “My second year at Morgan State, I didn’t think I was going to be playing football still. I was like, ‘Damn, it’s coming to an end two years in.’ I didn’t really have any stats for real.”
Baldwin transferred to Jackson State and took a redshirt year in 2019, and the fresh start marked a turning point in his career. The pandemic forced Jackson State to play a spring season, giving Baldwin the platform he needed to attract attention. He torched the SWAC to the tune of 540 yards and seven touchdowns on 27 catches in just six games.
That’s when Big Ten schools came calling.
In addition to the Wolverines, Ohio State and Penn State each offered Baldwin a scholarship this past offseason. While in the transfer portal, he prioritized schools with a strong track record of developing receivers and the ability to offer immediate playing time.
“Doors opened for me,” Baldwin said. “I just kept working, kept grinding honestly. Just having faith when there is nothing there. Like, you don’t know what’s going to happen next, you’re just praying something happens.”
After visiting Ann Arbor, Baldwin decided Michigan fit the bill. He turned down the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, opting to return to his home state and bet on himself. He arrived less than two weeks before fall camp started with little time to adjust to a new life before the season.
Despite being the oldest receiver on the roster, Baldwin spent his first month leaning on the Wolverines’ younger wideouts. About midway through fall camp, he began settling into the offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’s scheme.
“It’s not a specific time, it’s just a matter of when,” Baldwin said of the adjustment. “It just happens. You don’t really time it up, you don’t really think about it. After a while, you’ll just be like, ‘Alright, I’m here. I’m settled in now.’ I can’t tell you exactly when. Probably like a week and a half or two into camp.”
But just when he felt he was catching up, Baldwin experienced a setback, injuring his ankle the week of the Wolverines’ season opener against Western Michigan. He wasn’t even planning to see the field in Week 1, according to Gattis, but senior receiver Ronnie Bell’s early exit forced him to take snaps in his absence.
In a way, recent weeks have been a microcosm of Baldwin’s career as a whole. Progress disrupted by setbacks, again and again. He responded with the same mantra he always has: no struggle, no growth.
His first reception proved to be a memorable one. Baldwin caught a cross-body heave in stride from freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy, taking it 69 yards for a touchdown to begin his Michigan career. And as he celebrated in the end zone, his journey took the next important step toward his NFL dream.
“I’ve got to think about it pretty much every day,” Baldwin said. “Just understand no matter what, you’ve been through the worst. You’ve had days where you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. Here at a place like Michigan now, now it’s about staying with the process. Just stay with it.
“It’s worked this far. Don’t stop now … Keep taking the same steps you were taking when nobody knew who you were.”