When talking about freshman linebacker Jimmy Rolder, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh raves, calling him a “Big Ten” linebacker. But as is sometimes par for the course with Harbaugh’s mannerisms, Rolder isn’t exactly sure what he means.
“Honestly, I’m not like 100% sure what he means by that,” Rolder said Tuesday, smiling. “(I’m) honestly, just someone who could compete at a high level, just come in and work every day, just get better and compete when I’m out there.”
Only a freshman, Rolder isn’t out there all that often, but the fact that he is getting any snaps is impressive in its own right when you consider his journey to Ann Arbor.
Rolder’s first collegiate offer wasn’t actually for football. As a sophomore in high school, he was offered to play Division-I baseball at Illinois. For a while, that was it — baseball was the only sport providing Division-I offers — and after COVID-19 shortened his junior season, there was a chance that would be it.
But then, five weeks into his senior season, the football offers started rolling in. And once Rolder got one, they just kept coming. First came Illinois for football, then Minnesota and then all of a sudden Rolder had gone on three recruiting visits to Michigan and that was that.
“Just the culture, pretty much everything about (Michigan),” Rolder said of what drew him to Ann Arbor. “Great football, great academics just the coaching staff very welcoming, the players very welcoming. Just all around it just felt like home.”
Rolder has found a home in the, candidly, thin linebacker room. As the season has progressed, he has found more and more playing time, though it still comes few and far between. But just this past weekend, against Rutgers, Rolder recorded a career-high four tackles.
Not a world-beater, yet, but these are baby steps.
It’s very rare when a freshman can come in and contribute like cornerback Will Johnson or defensive tackle Mason Graham, but Rolder is in the process of establishing himself as one of those names.
That process comes with its fair share of challenges.
“It’s been a lot tougher mentally compared to physically,” Rolder said. “… Just having to kind of retain everything fast. It was tough in the beginning, but it’s getting easier as I go.”
Part of that toughness came from Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter and the complicated scheme he employs — one that is especially challenging for a freshman.
But how does it compare to the scheme he ran in high school?
“It’s not even close, I ran like two coverages, maybe five blitzes,” Rolder said. “This is nowhere close to that, you check up maybe five blitzes or two coverages in one play.”
Even still, and however slowly, Rolder is adapting to the Wolverines — to the college game. And as he gets more and more comfortable, his snap count will keep going up and up; thus is the way life goes as a freshman at a legitimate contender.
Rolder’s baseball background is actually one of the areas that give him a leg up on the competition. While he doesn’t play anymore because he wants to focus on football, as he said, there are lessons and attributes that he applies from the diamond every day.
“Instinct and reaction, I think are just like the biggest part,” Rolder said. “Baseball is a game of short memory, because (if) you fail, (if) you get three out of ten times success, that’s good. So just like if I have a bad play, just moving on and be able to forget it, I think that’s the biggest thing that came from (baseball).”
And if he keeps that focus up, maybe he’ll actually be a Big Ten linebacker sooner rather than later.