Jeff Persi had less than a day to prepare for his first collegiate start.
The junior offensive tackle had only appeared in five games throughout his entire three years on the No. 3 Michigan football team’s roster. With starting left tackle Ryan Hayes out against Rutgers, Persi was thrust out of the frying pan and into the fire.
He handled the heat.
“I thought it was all really good with Jeff,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “His strike was good, he’s gonna continue to get stronger … Jeff’s next improvement is being able to stay with it, stay with that block, not let that defender separate and go make the tackle. And that’ll be a very good next step for Jeff because he’s really good.”
Obviously, as Harbaugh pointed out, there’s room for improvement after a first start. But the success Harbaugh saw also showed up in the numbers. Persi allowed just one pressure on all pass protection snaps — impressive on a night where sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy often found himself under duress in the pocket.
Persi’s mistakes in the game mostly occurred early; he settled in more as the game went on. But, at least in his eyes, he felt comfortable finding his rhythm knowing that the whole Wolverine cast was there to back him up.
“Definitely some nerves going into it,” Persi said Saturday. “But, with the (offensive) line around me, (running) backs, tight ends, quarterback, and then these guys on defense, the whole operation — it makes it easy, it really does.”
That support doesn’t end with the people on the field. The person Persi was replacing also played a part in his success.
“I talked to Ryan (before the game),” Persi said. “… He’s a good leader, a good guy to look up to for sure. He has the game experience and (is) very knowledgeable. So it’s definitely good to have a guy like that to lean on and learn from.”
Michigan had many players in a Persi-like role Saturday, filling in for starters that were sidelined with injury or illness, who also proved to be formidable.
Beyond mentorship, Harbaugh and the Wolverines credit the success of players coming in on short notice — and helping Michigan to a 52-17 road win — to a cliché as old as time: next man up. Persi exemplifies that mentality.
“We all prepare every day like we’re gonna play,” Persi said. “We’re big believers in the next man up. Everyone’s gonna be ready, everybody practices hard. Coach (Herbert) and the staff prepare us all year round and get us ready physically, mentally and in the film room. … We’re a resilient team, and we’re definitely a deep team. So we got guys that are ready to step up and play.”
To be ready to step up, it takes work. That work doesn’t begin the day of the game, and it doesn’t begin when a player learns they’re starting. The work is done far before any of that, behind closed doors.
“Persi, he’s been grinding,” junior guard Zak Zinter said. “(We) came in in the same (recruiting) class. He’s been working all through the summer, fall camp spring ball, just waiting for that chance that he got and he really capitalized on it when his name was called.”
Persi is the definition of Michigan’s “next man up.” A reliable player to plug in when the first stringer goes down, but someone who makes it look like the team hasn’t missed a beat.
Saturday was Persi’s first start of his career, and possibly his only one for the rest of the season. Either way, for one night, he wasn’t just the Wolverine’s next man. He was the best man for the job.