Eight minutes into the No. 2 Michigan Football team’s game against Rutgers, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh got a little bit tricky.
On a play that the Wolverines had been planning all week, junior quarterback J.J. McCarthy handed the ball off before it was pitched backwards twice and returned to McCarthy. And while McCarthy and the running backs had executed their fake, Harbaugh needed sophomore tight end Colston Loveland to get a little bit tricky, too.
Loveland pretended to block for three seconds, and then slipped through a gap and sprinted into a wide open backfield where McCarthy found him for a 35-yard gain that set-up a two-yard touchdown.
At that moment, Harbaugh had needed Loveland to be deceptive. But the entire afternoon against Rutgers, it really didn’t matter what it was the Wolverines asked of Loveland. Because wherever they needed him, and whatever they needed him doing, Loveland consistently executed.
“He doesn’t know how good he is,” Harbaugh said. … I’m gonna say it the way Jack Harbaugh would say it. ‘He’s a ‘foot-ball-player.’ ”
Throughout the contest, Harbaugh and the Wolverines played a run-first style of football — rarely taking deep shots. And for Loveland, that meant that he was heavily involved in nearly every play.
On run plays, Loveland blocked — and it mattered. Through the first three games, Michigan’s running backs had struggled to break through due to inconsistent blocking from tight ends and offensive lineman. But Saturday, Loveland led the charge in blocking on the 40 rushing attempts. And the running backs benefitted, posting their first 200-yard day of the season.
“I thought (the tight ends) played a pretty good game in the run game,” Loveland said of his position group. “Finishing blocks, really straining. Whoever strains more is going to win.”
And on passing plays — Loveland was the primary target. With five receptions for 75 yards, he led the receiving core in both categories and marched Michigan down the field with consistent, effective routes. He made himself consistently available as an outlet for McCarthy. When he was pressured, or needed a short yardage gain, Loveland was exactly where he needed him to be.
But when McCarthy needed big plays, he also turned to Loveland. Following his 35-yard leak, Loveland struck again in the fourth quarter on a quick go route. He ran 28 yards and leapt into the air to grab a high pass over two defensive backs while falling backward.
“He’s really great, (a) freak athlete,” Harbaugh said. “I think the cat’s out of the bag. And he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t know how good he can be. … I kind of always thought that maybe the longer it takes him to figure that out, the better off he’ll be. But, the cat’s out of the bag.”
Harbaugh’s comments betray the nature of Loveland’s role as a tight end. He’s not supposed to be the center of attention. His position is supposed to be the gritty second option — in both receiving and blocking — that helps others stand out. And he did that.
But he also stood out in his own right. Contributing the longest, and third-longest plays of the day for Michigan, Loveland wasn’t just the second option. His presence wasn’t the sole reason why the offense flowed, but it greased the gears.
And it might not be long before Loveland is seen as more than just a part of the offense, but one of its drivers, too.