A few minutes before 3 p.m. Saturday, Jake Butt, Jourdan Lewis and Chris Wormley sat down together at a table in the Crisler Center media room. As they looked beside them, they saw something they didn’t often see last year: teammates who passed up serious NFL Draft opportunities to return for a final season.
Michigan’s only NFL draftees in 2015 were defensive end Frank Clark, wide receiver Devin Funchess (who gave up his senior season of eligibility to turn pro) and linebacker Jake Ryan. Butt and Lewis weren’t yet eligible, and Wormley wasn’t quite an NFL prospect, having torn his ACL earlier in his career.
But each of them could have left early for the NFL last season — and likely gone in at least one of the middle rounds of the draft. Instead, they chose to come back for precisely the opportunity that awaits them now: one last season with almost everyone back and expectations high.
Last year, Michigan had only defensive lineman Willie Henry leave early for the NFL, and the returning players will be crucial this season. Some players took time to make the decision — Butt, for example, said at one point he was 50-50 on leaving. Some, like Lewis, didn’t give it much of a discussion.
“You gotta know what you came here for,” Lewis said. “You gotta understand yourself and understand what’s important to you. We could have opted out and made the money, but money wasn’t important to us. It was football. It was our legacy here and our tradition and what we were gonna (leave here).”
The All-American cornerback, after setting a Michigan single-season record for pass breakups, knew the advantages and disadvantages and said the decision wasn’t difficult when it came down to it.
“Honestly, it was just the whole experience,” Lewis said. “Not just this game, it’s just my whole senior season. Just to forgo that, why not experience something like that. Why rush into, I guess, ‘the real world?’ I just don’t see it as a plus.”
Butt, Lewis and Wormley each played their first two seasons in 2013 and 2014, when Michigan struggled to finishes of 7-6 and 5-7, respectively. (Wormley, a year older, was also on campus in 2012, when he redshirted and the Wolverines went 8-5.)
All three played major roles in the team’s 10-win season in 2015, but that was only part of it, in Butt’s mind.
“I really believed that I would get to be a part of some great Michigan football, and the first two years, we didn’t really get that done,” Butt said. “It was tough. We had some low times and everything, and last year we just got a little taste of what it’s like. I really wanted to come back, me personally, and see what we could do this year because I really believe that with these guys that we can get something special done.”
Wormley echoed that sentiment and saw all of the potential this year’s team has with his teammates returning. He also said he wasn’t ready for the NFL yet and thought he could prepare himself better by coming back and playing another season in college.
In doing so, he could also check off some of his other team goals. For all of Michigan’s success last year, it did not beat Michigan State, beat Ohio State or win its first Big Ten championship since 2004.
“I think we have the guys this year to contend pretty well for that,” Wormley said. “We have a tough road schedule this year, but I think we can get it done. I think it comes back, for me personally, it was just the opportunity to do things that I’ve been able to do here as a Michigan football player: get the opportunity to beat a few teams we haven’t beaten since I’ve been here, win a Big Ten championship and just get better as a football player.”
Michigan’s pro prospects — who also include fifth-year senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson and a handful of others — have now waited out the eight months since the end of last season. They have watched other players be selected in the NFL Draft, sign their first pro contracts and start training camp with their new teams.
For Lewis and others, when game week begins and the new season arrives, so does the potential for the reward they sought when they made their decisions toward the end of last season.
“Honestly, (I) just wanted to get it out of the way and just focus on football,” Lewis said. “I don’t want the hype and all that other stuff, talking about ‘Is he gonna leave or is he gonna come back?’ I just want to worry about football, honestly.”