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Last month, when Jalen Mayfield announced his decision to return for his junior season, an air of excitement bubbled through Schembechler Hall.

Right guard Andrew Stueber said he couldn’t wait to play next to him. According to offensive line coach Ed Warinner, he’s “rallied the group.”

And it’s easy to see why. Mayfield is likely a first-round NFL Draft pick. He is, by all accounts, Michigan’s best offensive lineman. On Saturday, he’ll continue showing why when he lines up at right tackle against Minnesota in the Wolverines’ season opener.

But four years ago, it nearly didn’t happen this way. There’s a photo still up on Mayfield’s Twitter page from Feb. 18, 2017 proving as much.

In it, Mayfield — complete with his high school buzzcut — has his left arm wrapped around Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck. His right is holding a six-foot wooden oar, matching the maroon wallpaper behind him etched with Fleck’s catchphrase: “Row the boat.”

Above the picture, Mayfield’s caption reads, “I am extremely blessed and proud to announce that I will continue my academic and athletic career at Minnesota!!!!”

For a few months in the winter of 2017, this is where Mayfield’s future was supposed to take him. Fleck was newly hired from Western Michigan back then, which is how he knew about Mayfield in the first place. Though he eventually ended up as a four-star recruit, Mayfield flew under the radar as a junior, mostly seeing interest from smaller local programs like the Broncos.

So when he arrived in Minneapolis, Fleck made the Gophers one of Mayfield’s first Power Five suitors, all with the help of Warinner, then the offensive line coach at Minnesota.

“He was a … guy that we really wanted,” Warinner said. “And obviously we were proven right.”

Six hundred miles away, in Ann Arbor, forces were working to prevent that.

Tim Drevno, Michigan’s offensive coordinator and line coach at the time, hadn’t yet made it to Catholic Central High School in Grand Rapids to scout Mayfield. But the Wolverines’ recruiting operation is carefully constructed to make sure players like Mayfield don’t slip away.

“You need to build a fence around your state,” Drevno told The Daily this week. “You’re gonna know about every darn player in that state.”

To do that, Michigan’s recruiting assistants sift through thousands of hours of film, searching for a player worth mentioning to the coaching staff. In the winter of 2017, Mayfield was one of those players.

Immediately, his turnover speed, flexibility and first-step quickness popped off the screen. “I knew he was gonna be really special, Drevno said. “… He had those skillsets that you go, ‘Wow, who’s this guy?’ ”

Then, shortly after Mayfield came on the Wolverines’ radar, he committed to Minnesota.

“But you gotta keep recruiting these guys until the end, until they sign the paper,” Drevno said. In Mayfield’s case, that persistence was bolstered by conversations with his parents. Michigan, Drevno learned, had long been a dream school of Mayfield’s.

That’s something that Minnesota — commitment or not — couldn’t compete with. So in April, the Wolverines invited Mayfield and his parents to Ann Arbor for their spring game.

There, after a visit that awed Mayfield’s parents, Michigan extended a formal offer.

“He was shocked,” Drevno said. “And I believe I saw the mom, at the time, got teared up because she was so excited about the offer to Michigan.”

Within a month, Mayfield had committed. “A great day, great get,” in Drevno’s words.

Back in Minneapolis, Warinner’s reaction was the opposite. Mayfield would have been a building block for Fleck’s program and the type of player that Warinner — as he would eventually prove — could quickly turn into a stalwart on the line.

Even at the time, though, Warinner understood why it happened. The pull of an in-state power wasn’t something Minnesota could replicate.

And now, sitting in Schembechler Hall four years later, he has a different perspective — the perspective of a lifetime offensive coordinator who gets to coach one of his best pupils for nine more fleeting games.

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