With Donovan Jeter, it’s never been a question of talent.
Jeter came to Michigan a lauded four-star defensive lineman recruit from Beaver Falls, Pa. He had offers aplenty — Notre Dame, Alabama, Ohio State, Penn State, you name it. Like any other high-end Division I talent, he’d never sat on the bench or had to wait his turn, and maybe that was all part of the problem.
“We’re going to be crazy when we get there,” Jeter, smirking, told a reporter from 247Sports during his senior year of high school. “We’re going to need that first year to get settled in, but that sophomore year, we’re going to be crazy out there.”
Since then, hardly anything has gone as planned. Jeter promptly tore his meniscus in the latter part of his freshman fall camp. He missed the entire season, and that sophomore season he intended to be “crazy” became, ostensibly, his freshman season. The learning curve was steep. Playing time was minimal.
Now Jeter, with three career tackles to his name, will enter fall camp as one of the most important players on the Wolverines’ defense — fairly or otherwise — facing a season that will make or break his trajectory, on a team that desperately needs the former.
“After not playing for a year — coming out of high school, I get injured and not playing for a year — then I come and basically just sat the bench,” Jeter said after Saturday’s Spring Game. “I’m not used to that, so I couldn’t just sit there and be OK with ‘Ah, I can be a backup.’ Nah, I got to try to be the best player I can be.”
Jeter has spent this spring doing his best to follow through on that commitment. He’s focused on honing his technique, trying to incrementally improve each day, slowly ascending toward the player he wants to be. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said he “appears hellbent on being the starting defensive tackle.”
“Donovan Jeter is really special,” added senior defensive end Josh Uche. “I’ve known it. Me and him, we’ve gone through stuff. We’ll talk to each other, pick each other up and he’s just special, man. He’s picked it up so much this spring and I’m so proud of him. I can’t wait til you guys see what he’s done this spring.”
For a team that lost Lawrence Marshall, Bryan Mone and Aubrey Solomon along the interior, there’s little alternative at the moment. Senior Michael Dwumfour remains sidelined for an undisclosed amount of time with an injury. On the razor-thin depth chart, Jeter and senior Carlo Kemp pack the bulk of experience, with true freshman Mazi Smith and converted fullback Ben Mason being relied upon behind them.
Jeter will get his opportunity, whether he’s ready or not.
When Jeter speaks, he does so with firm conviction. It’s clear he carries the bumps and bruises of the last two years with him, and that they’ve calloused into determination. There’s a clear understanding that he knows this is the year for him.
“I think it’s a mindset. I just changed my mindset,” he said. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to be dominant and I’m going to be physical.’
“I’ve always had power, I’ve always been strong. I’m still working on a lot of things, every day I’d tell myself, ‘I’ve got to get better at something.’ Whether it’s my hands, or my feet, or how I play a certain block, or how I read the back, there’s certain things I had to do.”
Spring hype tends to generate as a result of surprise, necessity or some combination of the two. Real competition is the only thing that will unveil where Jeter falls along that spectrum; whether his hype was simply borne of a necessity for interior defensive linemen or whether this is truly his breakthrough moment.
“Yeah, I’m ready to be a big-time player,” Jeter said. “I’ve been working like it. I have to fine-tune some things still. Like I said earlier, there are still so many things I want to work in my game. I think I have what I need to. Now it’s about putting the work in and really just executing and really tweaking those little things.”
Four months out, he is controlling what he can — mentally, technically and intellectually. The rest, he believes, will take care of itself.
Because with Donovan Jeter, it’s never been a question of talent.