STATE COLLEGE — Erick All was as surprised as the rest of us.
As surprised as the 109,000 gasping fans inside Beaver Stadium whose cheers rattled the building just moments earlier. As surprised as Jim Harbaugh, who noticed the Penn State defense in man coverage and “out of leverage” and began licking his chops.
When All lined up on the left end of the offensive line, he took a glance downfield, scanning the defensive formation. He looked to his right — the path of his crossing route — and saw green grass.
At the snap, All broke off the line, chipped a defender and looked back towards Cade McNamara. He hauled in the throw at the line of scrimmage and swiveled his head.
“When I turned, I didn’t think it was gonna be that open,” All said after the game. “There was nobody there.”
And so All, the junior tight end, dashed down the sideline and into the endzone for the eventual game-winning, 47-yard touchdown catch with just 3:29 minutes to play. It’s fitting that All be the one to vault Michigan to a signature road win because, a few hours prior to kickoff, he didn’t even know if he would play.
On Oct. 30, All hobbled off the field at Spartan Stadium with an apparent injury in the game’s waning minutes. It was somewhat lost in the shuffle of Michigan’s fourth quarter implosion. But to All, it was devastating.
“I thought I popped (my ankle) out of place,” All says now, two weeks later. “I thought I was done.”
All sat out of practice until Nov. 4, when he put the ankle to the test. He maintains it felt good — though not good enough to dress for last Saturday’s game against Indiana.
“But I knew if I kept progressing, I’d be able to play this week,” All said.
So that’s what he did. Each day, he showed up to the facility at 7:00 a.m. for treatment. He practiced through pain, estimating now that his ankle was at about 80%.
When he woke up Saturday morning, he felt sore.
“Just wanted to get out there pregame, see how it felt, work through it,” All said. “It felt good and adrenaline took care of the rest.”
Injuries are a notoriously coy subject in college football. They’re mostly kept in-house for competitive advantage purposes: A team can game plan differently if it knows a key player on the other team is or isn’t healthy.
With All missing last weekend’s game, though, Penn State knew he wouldn’t be at full strength. In turn, they tried to exploit All psychologically.
“One of the players, (linebacker Ellis Brooks), he told me, ‘We know, we’ve been scouting you, we know your ankle’s messed up, you ain’t going nowhere,’ ” All said. “Trying to get in my head.”
If anything, those tactics had the opposite effect.
“That type of stuff just amps me up, adds a little adrenaline and makes you thrive,” All said.
Indeed, All is thriving. On a smaller scale, All’s trajectory is representative of Michigan’s overall growth as a team, top to bottom, from last season to this one.
All’s 2020 campaign was a struggle. His frequent drops — he dropped four passes in total — became a punchline amongst the fanbase. He had the yips; All maintained that his dropped touchdown in last year’s season-opener was his first drop of the calendar year, practice including.
Now, a year later, All is the heart of Michigan’s passing game, a surefire target and top-tier tight end. He leads the team with 30 receptions, while his 319 receiving yards rank second, trailing only junior receiver Cornelius Johnson.
Two weeks ago, Michigan tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh praised All’s habits and intensity, a combination that leads to growth in “increments.”
Not even an ankle injury can get in the way of that.
“It just shows how much these dudes care about each other,” McNamara, who doubles as All’s roommate, said. “It upsets them when they’re not able to be out there with their brothers. Erick, I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about that ankle, he was thinking about the team.”
The irony, though, is the pain weighed on All’s mind throughout the game. You wouldn’t know it by watching him: He looked deft on an 11-yard catch on a fullback wheel route that set the stage for Michigan’s second touchdown of the game. Or by looking at his final statline: four catches for 64 yards.
And yet, when he first turned upfield on that game-changing fourth quarter touchdown, he was thinking about the ankle. At this point, All says, it’s a matter of pain tolerance. He felt it tweak, inducing a rush of anxiety: Could he still beat the defense to the endzone?
“Coming back from a high ankle, put that one to bed,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game, his voice raised a few decibels. “He was rolling.”
Earlier in his press conference, after answering a question about senior running back Hassan Haskins, Harbaugh stopped himself.
“Forgot about Erick All,” he said, glowing.
And luckily for Michigan, so did the Penn State defense.