Every time Cam McGrone took to the practice field during the week leading up to Michigan’s game against Rutgers, his body shook with nerves.
A few days earlier, junior linebacker Josh Ross went down with an injury against Wisconsin, thrusting the Wolverines’ established starting linebacker trio into peril. As the top choice to step in for Ross, McGrone’s first impressions weren’t resoundingly positive — his highlight-reel goal-line stuff contrasted missed assignments in a 35-14 loss to the Badgers.
Still, the redshirt freshman linebacker was the clear choice to take over as Michigan’s starting middle linebacker when Ross’ injury developed into a multi-week absence. The message from defensive coordinator Don Brown was simple: Just be ready.
Two months later, McGrone has done that and then some, developing into a permanent starter as a now-healthy Ross watches from the sidelines to preserve his redshirt.
“(McGrone brings) physicality, speed,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “And getting better and better with understanding all the adjustments to the defensive calls. His responsibilities and the others around him. Just playing really good football.”
Those attributes — namely his speed — are what pop off the field on Saturdays. They’re what draw comparisons to Devin Bush and have the Wolverines salivating about what McGrone could become.
To get there, he had to become more than just speed.
“Seeing him as a freshman, I thought that he was very mature for where he stood when he came in,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Jordan Glasgow. “I felt, physically and mentally, that he was at a pretty high level already. And then he made a big improvement from freshman to sophomore year. And obviously you can see how good of a player he is now.”
As the MIKE linebacker in Brown’s defense, McGrone is sandwiched between the experienced duo of Glasgow and senior VIPER Khaleke Hudson. And yet, he carries the most responsibility, diagnosing an offense’s formation as it unfolds.
“As a MIKE linebacker, you have everything on your shoulders,” McGrone said. “So it hasn’t gotten any worse, any better. But it’s definitely just been fun to be there, kinda like the middle of the defense, helping everybody out.”
It’s a responsibility seemingly at odds with McGrone’s inexperience, but through seven career starts, that’s the marriage he’s making.
“Just being out there, running the plays that I’ve been running for over a year and really seeing it in real time on the big stage, it kinda clicks like that,” McGrone said. “Because it has to because the next play, it could be the same thing.”
Ask McGrone himself and he’ll tell you he’s a slow learner — the type of player who needs a year of experience before being ready to jump into heavy playing time. Ask anyone else and they’ll extoll his ability to step in for Ross and immediately become the linchpin of Michigan’s defense.
It’s why, when Glasgow — a Butkus Award semifinalist for the nation’s best linebacker — was asked about his personal accolades, he deflected, saying, “I feel like I play with better linebackers than myself.”
Throughout his career, that’s been true because of players more experienced than him — players who were expected to be stars entering the season.
Now, it’s true because of a redshirt freshman.
“Cam, if he started all the games,” Glasgow said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he was up there instead of myself.”