There have been a few parties inside of Schembechler Hall this year.
Or, to be more accurate, “coming out parties,” as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh dubbed them. Among the list of those celebrated, and the only individual player mentioned, was fifth-year tight end Luke Schoonmaker.
In actuality, Harbaugh believes this “new” Schoonmaker isn’t novel to the team, only to outsiders.
“He’s always been that (way) — the catches, the targets, the blocking — I think everybody’s just seeing what we’ve always seen and thought of Luke,” Harbaugh said Monday. “And (he) just has elevated his game to a really higher level, and it’s great to see.”
Though Harbaugh says it was always there, it’s to no one’s fault that they didn’t see the same. In the past, Schoonmaker simply hasn’t had the type of production that the fifth-ranked Wolverines have drawn out of him this year; and really, it’s almost come out of the blue.
This season, in just six games Schoonmaker has already eclipsed the total yardage from his past four seasons combined, and has half as many touchdowns. It’s a hairpin turnaround for someone so late in their collegiate career, but somehow, Schoonmaker has found his stride.
“I’ve been thinking about (my improvement) recently, and just making sure I’m catching things with my hands,” Schoonmaker said Tuesday. “And I think something that I can even continue to work on is just keep being fast and extending plays as much as I can and making use of my speed and my vision of the field.”
Catching with his hands; the statement seems obvious, almost comical, but Schoonmaker is dead serious. In past seasons, he’s been a culprit of dropped balls, admittedly shoddy route running and a lack of consistency in his pass-game duties.
On top of that, Schoonmaker worked on his mental game. Everything he’s doing in terms of production also benefits from what he’s done in the film room and his football education.
“There’s been a bunch of little tidbits, I guess, but just seeing the coverages and stuff in defense, and I think more about defenses and pre-snap just seeing things better and making myself more available and things like that.”
Schoonmaker’s new-look can, perchance, be better found where the physical and mental meet.
“This offseason, and even last year too, I think (I’m) just happy with the weight I’m at right now,” Schoonmaker said. “… (I’m) even watching tight ends that are similar body type that can really make those plays and extend plays and learn from that.”
Elaborating on who, specifically, Schoonmaker is emulating his game after, he added:
“I think (George) Kittle is my favorite, but watching guys like him — think about (Mark) Andrews too — guys that can run well in space and just play loose but are great with their hands, too. So (I’ve) been trying to watch a lot of those guys and incorporate it into what I do.”
But Schoonmaker’s success can’t only be attributed to watching NFL Sundays and getting in the gym. There’s also a matter of circumstance.
First, he has a new passing partner in sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy, whose 78% completion rate currently sits highest of any quarterback in FBS. And for Schoonmaker, McCarthy is quite arguably the most talented quarterback that he’s ever played with. As an experienced tight end, it’s about the best situation that can befall him.
“It’s such a blast to play with J.J. and his excitement and just how talented he is,” Schoonmaker said. “And you see that every week. He gets more confident as the week goes, so it’s been awesome. And we’re just gonna keep on doing it.”
McCarthy’s talent is no secret, and how teammates on the receiving end of his passes feel is likely no surprise. But McCarthy has his own perception of his and Schoonmaker’s connection to share. It’s no coincidence that it’s similar.
“He was a great tight end the minute I stepped in here,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “… When I first walked into (Schembechler) … I see Luke Schoonmaker working out in the weight room blasting music going crazy. And I knew that from that day, I knew that kid was special. And just being able to have the opportunity to go into live reps and work with him on a day-to-day basis has been huge, and that chemistry is only going to grow.”
The final part of Schoonmaker’s rise spouted from unfortunate circumstances for Michigan. Senior tight end Erick All was sidelined with a back injury for an undisclosed amount of time, with no sign of him suiting up for a Saturday any time soon.
All, a team captain and stalwart cornerstone of the Wolverines’ offense, left a huge hole to fill. It’s a hole Schoonmaker might never fully plug. Even still, Michigan needs Schoonmaker just as he is right now — producing, and doing so efficiently. With Schoonmaker the new No. 1 tight end for the Wolverines, he doesn’t need to completely replace All.
He just needs to keep the party going.