Cesar Ruiz sat atop the podium, smirking frequently and bantering with junior guard Michael Onwenu to his right. The confidence oozed — perhaps due to the 57-carry, 303-yard demolition his unit had just orchestrated, perhaps simply a product of his happy-go-lucky attitude.
“We said in the locker room we knew what kind of game it was going to be,” Ruiz said after the game. “We changed the openers a little bit. We knew we were gonna be ground and pounding a lot today. It’s the game we’ve been waiting for. We love running the ball. And just, we knew today was gonna be the day we were gonna be able to showcase it.”
It wasn’t simply that Ruiz and the rest of the offensive line had its way with a physical Notre Dame defense, but the manner in which it happened. In a persistent rain, the Irish knew Michigan was going to run. The Wolverines did so anyway, putting hat on hat, winning individual matchups, completely taking over the game en route to a 45-14 win.
When Ruiz arrived at Michigan, the offensive line was among this program’s biggest flaws; his commitment was a major boon. Now, that group appears to be the team’s foundation, and the Notre Dame game was just the latest evidence of the group’s evolution. The coaches said Ruiz graded out the highest among a group of highly-graded linemen on Saturday.
“I thought he had his best game as a Michigan Wolverine,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on his radio show Monday night. “He was doing so many athletic things in this ball game. He had a touchdown block. And on that one, where he did pull and got the block on the linebacker, you actually see him checking the gap before he went on his pull.”
Ruiz has started from day one, arriving with the Wolverines after a year at IMG Academy in Florida. He was a top-tier recruit, as close to a finished product as they come. He appeared in 10 games in 2017, his freshman season, and started at guard in the final five — both merited by pure talented and warranted by necessity.
Still, there are times in every successful collegiate career when things really click — when the speed and complication ceases, and football becomes football again. Ruiz always had too much talent to fail, but there have been times of inconsistency in the first couple years of his career.
Any such struggles appear to be ways of the past now.
“I have two starting centers in the National Football League, both started as rookies. He has that kind of ability some day to get to that point,” said Michigan offensive line coach Ed Warriner in April 2018, the spring preceding Ruiz’s second season. “Not yet, he’s just a young kid. But if he keeps going, I know what they look like.”
That was, presumably, mere months after the two had met. All Warriner had to do was flash Ruiz’s high school tape to know he’d be relying on Ruiz early and often. All Ruiz had to do was toss a cursory Google search of Warriner’s history to understand why that need went both ways.
The comfort level with Ruiz is now obvious, and all parties are reaping the benefits.
“He’s good in space — we tease him, ‘Cees in space,’ We joke around about that. We got into a situation with the defenses where we were playing where we were able to pull him some, get him on the perimeter, and he likes doing that.”
Added Harbaugh: “The level of him understanding the game has really grown where he can know the front, see rotations now and even when he goes to put his head between his legs to snap the ball back to Shea,” Harbaugh said. “He’s got a pretty good idea where his man is going to be even if that linebacker moved or that down-lineman moved. It’s extraordinary.”
After Saturday’s game, Ruiz and Onwenu were asked a question about whether this kind of performance had been building. Onwenu went first, providing a diplomatic answer.
Ruiz nodded immediately, smiled and nudged toward his microphone.
“I knew it was coming sooner or later.”