Football giveth and football taketh away.

Dylan McCaffrey is the newest member of the Michigan football team to learn the maxim.

The redshirt freshman quarterback entered Saturday’s game against Nebraska after the Wolverines starters built up a 46-3 lead late into the third quarter.

On his first play, McCaffrey dropped back, side-stepped and saw a path down the left sideline to run with abandon. McCaffrey saw nothing but green in front of him, even adding distance between himself and the defensive back in pursuit into the endzone. But a holding penalty on redshirt freshman receiver Oliver Martin that sealed the edge for McCaffrey erased the most electric play of his young career.

“In all honesty, I didn’t think it was holding at all, so I just told him that,” McCaffrey said. “He agreed, but he was bummed like anyone would be.”

McCaffrey wasted no time making up for it. He threw two 15-yard throws on rollouts and had a 17-yard scamper on that same drive to set up a field goal. The next drive, he dropped a dime into the hands of freshman wide receiver Ronnie Bell for a 56-yard score. It’s give and take.

“Dylan continues to improve every time he gets in,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “That’s a position like all the positions in football, but especially quarterback, it takes playing and having time on task and being out there. And it — he’s getting that. It doesn’t — it’s never too big for him. I really like that about Dylan.”

A few weeks prior, Harbaugh lauded his demeanor more succinctly — “coolness.” It was on full display in the season opener against No. 8 Notre Dame after Shea Patterson departed the game with leg cramps in the fourth quarter. With Michigan within two scores, McCaffrey entered a game for the first time in his college career — let alone at a critical juncture — and completed four of six passes before Patterson returned.  

“Right away, you could tell he brought confidence to the huddle,” said redshirt junior tight end Zach Gentry. “He hadn’t skipped a beat, he completed some passes, did what he needed to do. … You can never really tell if he’s nervous. He talks really steady and just makes plays.”

Assumed backup Brandon Peters was injured prior to that game, making McCaffrey the de facto No. 2 quarterback. And he ran with it, cementing himself as the next man up during garbage time in the Wolverines’ following three contests. Through three appearances, McCaffrey has compiled just 126 yards and two touchdowns, but a poise that has excited Michigan faithful.

From the sidelines, McCaffrey has reconciled his position — perpetually waiting in line — with a quote from his coach.

“Coach Harbaugh actually said something at the end of practice the other day that really stuck with me personally,” McCaffrey noted. “He said, ‘It’s better to be prepared and not get your opportunity then it is to be unprepared and get your opportunity.’ I think that’s just something you’ve gotta live by. You don’t wanna go out there and have no idea what you’re doing.

“… It’s just one of those things you’ve gotta prepare like you’re one play away because, frankly, you are.”

It’s why McCaffrey continually does what he refers to as “mental reps.” Last year, as a member of the scout team, McCaffrey would listen to what plays were being called on the sideline, double-check with the play calls listed on his wristband and evaluate what he would do as the plays would unfold on the field.

Following Harbaugh’s words, results from his preparedness have been positive so far this season.

“Dylan’s come a long way,” Gentry said. “I know that’s one of the guys that stays after practice a lot and gets route timing with extra guys, gets some extra reps.”

McCaffrey still has ways to go before finding himself in the lead role. It won’t happen while Patterson is still here. But either way he’ll be prepared, even if the opportunity never comes.

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