Cesar Ruiz is usually the one knocking players over.
But on Michigan’s second offensive play of its 33-10 win over Minnesota, the 6-foot-4, 316-pound right guard found himself in an unfamiliar position.
He was the one on the ground — bowled over by his own teammate, a seemingly diminutive 5-foot-10, 190-pound running back.
Welcome to big-time college football, freshman.
“There was a play with Karan (Higdon) — he kinda ran me over,” Ruiz recalled Monday afternoon. “And I got up, and I saw him running, and my first instinct was to go run with him. … As an offensive lineman, that feels great. That means we did our job.”
Higdon’s 47-yard run on the play was only the beginning. The Wolverines paved their way to a season-high 371 rushing yards — the second-highest total of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure.
Ruiz was a big reason why. He made his first collegiate start in place of sophomore Mike Onwenu, who was injured against Rutgers last week. Ruiz found out on Friday that he’d won a three-man starting competition against redshirt freshman Stephen Spanellis and redshirt sophomore Jon Runyan Jr.
And while he said Monday that any nerves are now gone, Ruiz still dealt with the butterflies before Saturday’s game. Because of thunder and lightning in the area, kickoff was pushed back an hour, leaving Ruiz unsure of whether he’d get to play or not. Monday, he admitted that he didn’t know what to expect from the delay and that his mind was “just all over the place” as he waited.
“I was pretty anxious in the locker room — you can ask some of the other offensive linemen,” Ruiz said. “I was just sitting there the whole time, waiting for them to tell us we could go back outside.
“Coach Harbaugh had said, ‘Get off your feet, sit down. I was just laying on my back, my eyes wide open, just staring at the ceiling like, ‘We have to go outside right now.’ ”
Ruiz didn’t seem nervous once he hit the field, though he did make one glaring error in pass protection. On a 3rd-and-14 early in the third quarter, he biffed his assignment, exposing Brandon Peters to a crushing sack. Ruiz himself knew immediately that he had made a mistake.
“I got to the sideline, I didn’t put my head down or anything, I told coach, I said, ‘Look, I messed up. That was nobody’s fault. That was mine. That was my fault,’ ” Ruiz said. “He said, ‘Move on from it. We all make mistakes. Just make (it) up.’ ”
That issue aside, Ruiz “acquitted himself very well” the rest of the game, according to Harbaugh. With a steady diet of powers and counters, Michigan frequently asked its new right guard to pull across the line and lead the way for the running backs — a role he was impactful in.
“Cesar was right in there,” Harbaugh said. “Just looked athletic getting up and chasing our backs down the field and trying to get in on the action and get the blocks. So very impressed.”
Added fifth-year senior fullback Henry Poggi: “(Ruiz is) really athletic. He’s still coming along, but I think he has all the tools to really become a great player for us, so really excited about that.”
Ruiz hasn’t spent all that much time at guard, either. He played exclusively center throughout high school, and only started learning both guard positions — in addition to right tackle — once he arrived in Ann Arbor. Until Onwenu’s injury, he’d been focusing on left guard. But Ruiz has been a quick study.
“I’ve been playing center my entire life. Playing without a ball in my hand was kinda weird, to be honest,” he said. “But it was something I picked up pretty quick — guard, tackle, I picked that up pretty quick.”
Of course, Ruiz is far from done learning yet — as that first run play taught him.
“That was new,” Ruiz said. “I hadn’t witnessed that before. But Karan, he doesn’t stop his feet. I doubt he knew I was there.”