There’s a phrase ringing around Schembechler Hall: Michigan’s early enrollees “should be at high school prom.” Cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich described them as “raw” and “green.” Certainly, they’re not ready for college football, not yet.
This is what spring ball is for those who graduate high school a semester early to come to Ann Arbor.
There are exceptions, of course. Mike Sainristil, a three-star athlete-turned-receiver in the 2019 class, has stolen the headlines and threatened junior cornerback Ambry Thomas’ mantle as the fastest player on the team. But Sainristil stands out as the exception, the extreme version of more moderate success stories like defensive lineman Mazi Smith and tight end Erick All.
For most, the adjustment isn’t so glamorous. The beauty of spring ball is that it doesn’t have to be.
Take four-star cornerback Jalen Perry, one of the eight early enrollees not in the spotlight. Despite his four-star billing, Perry isn’t expected to play much this season. When you ask Zordich about him, his response says as much without saying as much.
“Jalen?” Zordich asked, outwardly surprised that Tuesday’s press conference had made it that far down the depth chart. “(He’s) young. And I keep telling myself, hitting myself on the head cause I don’t want — he should be at the prom and he’s here with us now. And he’s gifted, he’s got the skillset, but he’s still in high school. And he’s got a little ways to go catching up, understanding the speed of the game, the technique that we use.”
Zordich, though, doesn’t mind the slow learning curve — the focus of spring ball for incoming freshmen is rarely on the upcoming fall.
“He’s getting all this under his belt now so he’ll walk in in the fall,” Zordich said. “He won’t have to go to the bridge process school and hopefully with his mind — he’s a very bright kid — he’ll retain all this and just be able to retain all this and just have that under his belt and feel a little more comfortable than he did walking in here raw, green as hell.”
Slow learning curves and “feeling a little more comfortable” are the point of spring practices. Even Sainristil figures to be behind Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black, and possibly Ronnie Bell and Oliver Martin, on the depth chart. All will likely slot in behind Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks.
But spring ball is about the future. It’s about the next generation of Donovan Jeters — the redshirt sophomore who arrived at Michigan in January 2017 and played sparingly during his first two years. His first spring accelerated him to becoming a key member of the Wolverines’ defensive line next fall.
There’s a reason Jeter glows with excitement when talking about this year’s class, especially Smith.
“I tell (Smith) all the time, I was you, I was in your exact same position,” Jeter said. “So with him, it’s just gonna become how fast he can pick up the speed of the game cause (Smith), dude’s like a monster.”
Vincent Gray is among those on the opposite side. The sophomore cornerback committed to Michigan late in the 2017 recruiting cycle and didn’t have the chance to enroll early. Instead, he spent his freshman year learning the playbook and played in just two games.
A year later, Gray — now expected to be among the Wolverines’ top trio of defensive backs — has become a mentor for Perry, guiding him through the spring he never had.
“With Jalen Perry, yeah, we’ve been working on the playbook a lot,” Gray said. “He’s really got it down, more advanced than I thought he would at this point is what I’d say, so he’s been making big strides. … That’s like the biggest part of what we do, being able to gain the trust from the coaches that you know what you’re doing when you get out there.”
The sacrifices of enrolling early aren’t small. Those little tidbits intermingled in football talk — the high school prom mentioned in passing, the allure of graduating with your classmates — matter to athletes. Parents want their kids at home for one last semester.
“Being a father of two Division I players,” Zordich said, “a father and mother don’t want them to go. But as a coach, it’s a beautiful thing.”
It’s a conversation that Michigan’s coaching staff has with any player considering enrolling early. And despite the benefits of getting to campus six months before everyone else, it’s a conversation that usually ends in fall enrollment.
But when it doesn’t, the Wolverines reap the benefits. Even if they take a while to come to fruition.