It is possible to play as a freshman for Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan football team, but it is not easy. Harbaugh does not pigeonhole younger players behind established older veterans, but he also does not trumpet the highest-ranked recruits as starters, handing them spots before they earn them.
“I think most recruits, the really good ones, the really competitive ones, look at it and see that it’s a meritocracy,” said Harbaugh’s son and tight ends coach, Jay Harbaugh. “Guys that put in the work and show that they can help us win will be on the field. So I think the guys that are really wired up right see that and like it, as opposed to maybe a situation at certain schools where people say, ‘Yeah, you’ll be the starter,’ or ‘You’ll be number two.’
“That’s not how it works here, but the guys that are really competitive-natured guys want to come in and compete, and they want to earn everything that they get, so it’s a good thing for us.”
This year, the Wolverines have shown that they have a lot of those players, and Kekoa Crawford appears to be one. When Crawford arrived this past summer as a four-star wide receiver recruit out of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., he knew he’d have to do something to differentiate himself. Fifth-year seniors Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh sat atop the depth chart, and little playing time behind them.
Chesson and Darboh are by far Michigan’s top pass-catching threats at wide receiver, but Crawford found another avenue onto the field: blocking. At 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, he has become one of the best blocking wide receivers on a team full of them.
To start one fourth-quarter drive against Maryland on Saturday, Crawford delivered two relentless blocks on the edge, one of which helped redshirt junior running back Ty Isaac pick up a 53-yard run.
That effort has made Crawford one of several freshmen to see significant action this season — for good measure, he went back on the field for Michigan’s next series and caught his first career touchdown pass to complement his blocking.
“(The coaches) preach that a lot to us, that you gotta do both,” Crawford said Tuesday. “Especially if you want to go to the next level, you gotta be able to do both, and I think they take that into account when they’re looking at you.”
The adjustments have happened quickly for Crawford in the past two months. First came the blocking, which the Wolverines use as a major part of their offense. The diversity of personnel and multiple tight-end sets may be the better-known hallmark of the offense, but wide receivers blocking on the edge are just as important.
Chesson earned a reputation for being one of the more physical wide receivers last season when he sprung a handful of long runs to go with his breakout receiving year. When Crawford showed he had the same ability, the coaches found a place for him on the field.
“You talk about receivers getting really involved in the run game, you’re turning 5- and 7-yard runs into 12-, 15- and longer-yard runs,” Jay Harbaugh said. “It can really make the difference, and it really makes their mentality of assuming that their block is going to be the one that breaks a big run. It’s kind of been a point of pride in that room, just hearing them talk about it, and it’s cool to see it really show up.”
Crawford’s next new experience after training camp was the start of classes in September. He hopes to study business, where he again has a mentor in Chesson, who graduated last spring with a degree in sociology and is now studying toward a master’s in management at the Ross School of Business.
Finally came the big stage of Michigan football, which at 9-0 and No. 3 in the country is giving Crawford quite a debut season.
The freshman came to Ann Arbor for his official visit last year for the Michigan State game, so he was already prepared for that rivalry in East Lansing on Oct. 29. Again, he adjusted well, and he even threw himself into some post-play activity during the game.
“Nothing was really said — just kind of exchanged some stares,” he said. “Talked a little bit, but that’s just part of the game, talking back and forth with the team.”
Crawford surprised a few people by making an appearance in Michigan’s 63-3 win in the season opener, but even as he has played all but one game since then, rarely has the situation been too big for him. Perhaps that was another reason he garnered early playing time from the coaches — only once he earned it, of course.