Chase Winovich has been a member of the Michigan football team for three seasons, worn three jersey numbers and worked at three different positions, and up until last Saturday, he had almost nothing to show for it.
For most of his first two years as a Wolverine, the three-star recruit from Jefferson Hills, Pa., was a player without a role, moving from position group to position group without his coaching staff being able to find him a suitable fit.
Winovich entered as a linebacker, redshirted his first season under then-Michigan coach Brady Hoke and moved to tight end under new coach Jim Harbaugh last year. He spent most of his time playing on the scout team, seeing game action just six times. But at the end of last season, with his team preparing for the Citrus Bowl against Florida, Winovich got in on some plays at defensive end during a scrimmage — despite not even knowing the scheme or the defense — and permanently changed the path of his career.
For the few plays he was on the field, Winovich immediately caught the eye of the coaching staff — later, he said, he found out that the entire defensive staff gathered in a post-scrimmage film session to watch one play that he made. Right then, it was decided: Winovich would be moving to defensive end.
“I think they believed in me from the beginning,” Winovich said, “and I believed in myself.”
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Saturday, Winovich stood in the Crisler Center media room, surrounded by reporters after making the first start of his college career.
After a strong spring for Winovich and an injury to senior defensive end Taco Charlton last week, Winovich learned earlier this week that he had been chosen to take Charlton’s place in the lineup against Central Florida. He was so excited that he could barely sleep last night, and he posted the news on Twitter, vowing to “represent the best university in the world” with his first start.
And impress Winovich did, picking up five tackles and his first career sack, knocking the ball out of UCF quarterback Justin Holman’s hands in the process.
After the game, with most of his family standing just a few feet away in the media room, Winovich’s voice nearly cracked as he attempted to express the emotion he was feeling.
“I’m not gonna lie and say that I was perfect out there, because nobody was,” he said. “But I felt like I left it all out there. And this one … this one today was for my family. They always believe in me. … Just to have the opportunity to go out there — people can’t take that away from me. There’s not a lot of things that really tug at my heartstrings, but that’s one of them.”
Winovich isn’t the only player who has thrived thanks to Harbaugh’s willingness to move players around the field. Redshirt junior fullback Khalid Hill played tight end last year but now has three touchdowns in two games. Junior center Mason Cole has transitioned seamlessly from being a starting left tackle.
But Hill and Cole were both experienced players who likely would have found playing time anyway — Winovich’s metamorphosis is harder to understand.
How exactly did he do it? How could a player who had little to no success for two years suddenly save his career at a third position?
If you ask him, he’ll cite an unexpected source of inspiration.
“(My brother) sent me this quote by Bruce Lee,” Winovich said. “He talks about water. ‘Water can flow, water can crash. If you put water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. If you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup.’
“Be shapeless — that was the moral of the story. Whatever mold they tried to put on me, I tried to learn. I’m not gonna lie, it’s tough. Sometimes, (if) you’ve been playing football your whole life, you get set in your own ways and how you do stuff and how you think stuff works, and you go in there and you get absolutely torn apart by Coach Mattison for doing it that way. You reevaluate your life and everything you’ve gotta do — which needs to happen — and you go out there the next day and say, ‘Well, I’m gonna go out there today and do it the right way.’ … I felt like I improved my game a lot of ways and was shapeless.”
After the immediate emotion wore off following the game, Winovich transformed into an ecstatic ball of energy, quoting everyone from UFC fighters Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz (on his fighting mentality) to his father, Peter (comparing settling in at his new position to his dad coming home from work and shouting, “Honey, I’m home! Put the steaks on!”)
The last quote may have been the most appropriate — Winovich sure seems at home now. Instead of putting in long hours on the scout team or trying his best to provide depth on offense, he can relax and do what he’s most comfortable doing.
“It just lets me get out there and play,” Winovich said. “Sometimes you don’t choose your passion — your passion chooses you.”
After the “shapeless” journeyman was finally done answering questions, reporters parted and left behind one of the only people in the room who looked happier than Winovich — his father. Without skipping a beat, Winovich walked up to him and wrapped him in a giant bear hug.
The Winovich family left the room together and ducked through a side door that opened up into the bowels of Crisler Center, Peter Winovich still basking in the culmination of his son’s journey.
“I always wanted to see what the furnace room looked like,” he said.