Eight seconds into the first game of his college career, Ryan Hayes faced his first test.
Khalil Brooks, Middle Tennessee State’s star linebacker, was barreling into the backfield, straight toward Shea Patterson’s blindside. Looking off a head fake from defensive end Malik Manciel, the left tackle dropped back, stared down the charging Brooks and nearly discarded him to the turf, allowing Patterson to escape the pocket.
Sixty minutes later, Hayes was Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s offensive player of the game.
“He graded out right there with Ben Bredeson and Cesar (Ruiz) and Mike Onwenu, which I thought was really impressive,” Harbaugh said. “Ben was a little higher, but considering it was Ryan’s first start, first game, seeing him and the effort that he gave and his ability. He made some fine blocks, was good with his hands.”
Hayes, a redshirt freshman converted from tight end, ascended the depth chart after a strong offseason in the weight room. “To see what he looked like from his first day to Saturday, it’s like night and day,” redshirt freshman right tackle Jalen Mayfield said Monday.
Despite his strong offseason, Hayes came into Saturday as the clear backup, stuck behind fifth-year senior Jon Runyan at left tackle until an injury held Runyan out of the season-opener. Across a line anchored by three returning starters on the interior, Mayfield saw his first career start at right tackle through similar circumstances, breaking into the starting lineup after Andrew Steuber’s preseason ACL tear.
Now, on the back of Hayes’ performance, a starting offensive line that seemed to be set once Steuber went down has been cast into doubt again. Monday afternoon, Harbaugh called Runyan “arguably our best lineman” but admitted the position is a meritocracy, also noting Hayes’ ability to slot in at right tackle.
“Is there ability to compete at the other tackle spot? Sure, that opens up options if he's come this far, he’s playing this well,” Harbaugh said. “Bodes well for the team.”
According to Harbaugh, Mayfield didn’t grade out as high as Hayes — hence the possibility Hayes could move to the right side of the line after Runyan returns. Mayfield got beat on a stunt for a third-quarter sack and seven minutes later to the outside for a quarterback hurry.
Still, he remained a steady presence on an offensive line that Harbaugh and Patterson repeatedly credited postgame.
“I think we did really well, first game, we were very prepared,” Mayfield said. “Extremely excited to see what we can do in the future, too. This was our first ever game as two redshirt freshmen playing at tackle so I think that’s really interesting that we did really well.”
But while it was the two redshirt freshmen who stood out considering the circumstances, Mayfield credited Michigan’s experience on the interior offensive line as the catalyst for his and Hayes’ performances Saturday night.
On the first play of the game, as Hayes threw Brooks to the turf, Mayfield handled his assignment with ease. The nerves, though, permeated until he remembered the advice Bredeson gave him before the game: play confident and have fun.
“The veteran group of guys in the middle just helped us a ton,” Mayfield said. “Cesar (Ruiz), Mike (Onwenu) and Ben (Bredeson). And I think sky’s the limit for us.”