Patrick Kugler was quick to say he never considered transferring.
But the fifth-year senior center certainly couldn’t have been blamed for doing so — or for at least considering it. Through his first four years on the Michigan football team, he played in just five games, failing to carve out a consistent role on the offensive line.
Time and time again, Kugler found himself on the wrong end of the depth chart. So it would have been understandable had he decided to leave Michigan and pursue a graduate transfer elsewhere for his final season of eligibility — perhaps somewhere like the University of Texas El-Paso, where his father, Sean Kugler, is the head coach.
Kugler shot that down Tuesday night, though, saying it would be “Michigan through and through.”
Kugler’s career thus far may seem like an unexpected turn for a player who many expected to be the anchor of a powerful offense.
As the No. 1 ranked center in the nation with offers from nearly everywhere, Kugler arrived in Ann Arbor as one of the most highly-touted members of a ballyhooed offensive line class under former Michigan coach Brady Hoke. The expectations for him and the rest of his linemates could not have been more overstated.
Yet, that vision of a mauling offensive line that would finally give Hoke his desired power-running game never took effect.
After Hoke was fired following Kugler’s second year, current head coach Jim Harbaugh stepped in. Harbaugh brought an entirely different staff and mentality, with Kugler calling the new four-hour practices an initial “shock.”
But he stuck around, even when many of his peers didn’t. One by one, each of the offensive linemen from that 2013 recruiting class left the team. And when fifth-year senior guard David Dawson announced earlier this spring that he would be transferring to Iowa State for his final year, Kugler officially became the last man standing.
He is older and wiser now, which may prove to be a boon for a team as inexperienced as Michigan is — especially on the offensive line, which will enter the year with just 48 total starts, 38 of which belong to senior center Mason Cole.
One of those 48 does belong to Kugler. He started in last year’s season opener against Hawaii at left guard in place of an injured redshirt senior Ben Braden. It wasn’t his natural position, but he made do. Braden, though, returned shortly, which left Kugler out of a spot. And, when then-sophomore offensive tackle Grant Newsome went down with a season-ending injury, the next man up was a freshman, Ben Bredeson, instead of Kugler.
That brief taste of a starting position left Kugler wanting more, especially after realizing he may not have approached the competition with the requisite intensity.
“You’ve got to outwork everybody,” Kugler said. “There’d be times where I’d probably get outworked last year or I wouldn’t do the extra work the past couple years, so it’s just about trying to get in there and get all the extra work that you possibly can.”
This time around, he says, he has done “all the little things” to try and get on the field. That has meant seeking more treatment after practices and workouts and trying to eat healthier — Kugler says he has been trying to cut down on pizza, his favorite food — while continuing to familiarize himself with the offense.
“It’s not a new system, but it’s a new terminology a little bit with (assistant head coach and passing game coordinator) Pep Hamilton here,” Kugler said. “So it’s just about getting the calls down, and they put a lot more emphasis on making calls with the center, so that’s been the key for me, just trying to get everything down. And it’s been going really well so far.”
Perhaps those adjustments, along with his improved work ethic, will lead to Kugler finding success in his final year. Either way, he’s not leaving Michigan — not before he gives it one last shot.
“I think that I’m one of the top five — everyone thinks they’re one of the top five,” Kugler said. “If I’m not starting in spring ball, I’ll earn that during (fall) camp, or if I don’t, I’ll try to be the best senior leader that I can regardless of what my role is on the team.
“… It’s my fifth year so it’s my last go-around, (and) I want to prove to everyone that I belong here and (that) I’m a Michigan man.”