FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It isn’t discussed much anymore, but Chris Wormley spent his first semester as a college student on crutches.
He arrived to Ann Arbor as an 18-year-old freshman defensive end from Toledo, Ohio, at the beginning of fall camp in 2012. Before his career even began, though, he tore his ACL, wiping out his freshman season. Meanwhile, the Wolverines followed an 11-2 finish in 2011 with a disappointing 8-5 campaign, with bigger falls to come.
Those kinds of memories seem distant now, but Wormley still remembers them.
“I think the hardest part was just the rehab process,” he said Wednesday at a media session ahead of Friday’s Orange Bowl. “There’d be weeks where it would seem like it wasn’t getting any better or the knee wasn’t healing as fast as I thought it should. So just staying in that clear mind and staying focused and not giving up was probably the hardest part.”
Now, Wormley is 23 years old, a fifth-year senior and one of the top defensive ends in college football. His production has dropped a bit this year, from 14.5 tackles for loss to nine and from 6.5 sacks to six, but he has been one of the engines in Michigan’s aggressive defense all season long. The ACL injury is in the past.
Back when it happened, though, Wormley’s future wasn’t as clear.
“I think we all knew the type of players that we could be, the type of players that we should have been. Two years ago, we were all still young,” Wormley said. “The 43 seniors that are on this team now, we were all young back then. And now we’ve risen to the challenge of being a team that everyone thinks that we can be.”
Michigan’s defense has surged from 41st in the country in yards allowed to seventh to fourth to finally second this year. And while the unit was always one of the strengths of the team, its emergence has followed a similar trajectory to Wormley.
The Wolverines have talked often over the past two years about how they’ve played a lot of football. For these players, that wasn’t always the case. They can now point to several times when they have overwhelmed an opponent and come into the next game confident they would do so again. When they began their careers, though, they didn’t have the same success to build upon.
“There’s always that doubt in the back of your mind — maybe I’m not going to be as good as I thought I was going to be, maybe as a unit we’re not going to be as good as we thought we were going to be,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow. “… I think one of the sayings goes, ‘The longer you don’t know you’re good, the better.’ You always just have to keep working.”
Glasgow himself was a walk-on when he came in, uncertain about his future at Michigan. Almost all of the Wolverines on the defensive side of the ball faced that at some point. For Wormley, that point came early. He won’t call it a blessing, but he thinks to some extent it brought him here.
The long hours rehabilitating his torn ACL eventually led to a terrific career. Glasgow recalls seeing Wormley in the training room for treatment every time he arrived to the facility when the two were freshmen. The road was not easy — the following spring, when the Wolverines returned for spring practice and Wormley was back on the field, the freshman still had just a handful of practices to his name.
“There were times I think Chris maybe got a little down on himself for how he was playing or how he was doing,” Glasgow said. “But as I said, his resilience as a player and as a person helped persevere through that, and now he’s, I think, one of the best (defensive ends) in college football.”
Every now and then, Michigan’s players will enjoy a trip back to the earlier days, though. It started earlier this season when they would break down film from last year to show to younger teammates. Then, during down time on Fridays before they took the bus to the team hotel, they began to look at their game film from two years ago, before they became one of the most successful units in college football. They called it “Old Film Fridays.”
“We’d laugh at our old mistakes, just laugh at each other, and just see where we’ve come as players,” Glasgow said.
Now, they can just laugh about it, because the Wolverines have solidified themselves over the past two years. Asked about the old days, Wormley makes another statement that Michigan has made often recently.
“We know what the opposite is,” Wormley said. “We know what it was like to lose more than half your games. We don’t ever want to go back to that.”