It’s forgotten now, amid the dawn of a fall unlike any other in Ann Arbor, but a year ago this week, Ryan Hayes was the talk of Schembechler Hall.
Three-hundred-sixty-eight days ago, Jim Harbaugh walked to the podium in one of those strange scenes that used to be the epitome of normal but now induces shutters. A few dozen reporters sat shoulder to shoulder and scribbled notes as Harbaugh spoke. The strangest note that day was that Hayes was Harbaugh’s offensive player of the week for his performance in Michigan’s mundane, 40-21, season-opening win against Middle Tennessee.
It was unexpected then, because Hayes was a late injury replacement for Jon Runyan Jr. at left tackle. To his right along the offensive line, there were four future NFL Draft picks. But Harbaugh’s primary takeaway wasn’t about them. It was about Hayes.
“We learned Ryan Hayes is pretty darn good,” Harbaugh said then.
That revelation was important for the Wolverines because of this week, and what this week was supposed to bring. Michigan, back in the before times, was scheduled to travel to Washington this weekend, a mighty challenge for the first game of the post-Shea Patterson era. Making that challenge even more difficult was the anticipated departures of Runyan, Ben Bredeson, Cesar Ruiz and Michael Onwenu along the offensive line.
All of which is why Hayes’s revelation as a trustworthy left tackle was so critical, even back then. This month, though, Hayes became even more important. When Jalen Mayfield — a potential first-round pick next April — declared for the NFL Draft on Aug. 18, Hayes suddenly became the centerpiece of Michigan’s offensive line, even with just two career starts.
From Kwity Paye’s vantage point across from Hayes in the Wolverines’ pad-less practices, Hayes’s growth in the new role was evident instantly.
“Ryan Hayes has taken that leadership role on the O-line,” Paye said Thursday. “I feel like he’s been getting those guys right.”
Hayes, for his part, is reluctant to accept that praise. He says his nature is to lead by example. In the wake of Mayfield’s departure, he says he’s “been trying to be a little bit more vocal and work on that side of leadership than just work by example.”
What he doesn’t need any adapting to is the on-field work. That part has been a work in progress since he arrived on campus as a lanky tight end. Over the past year, he’s completed his transition into a filled-out offensive tackle. “From here to last year, I definitely feel bigger, stronger, I feel more capable to do things,” Hayes said.
Most of that work, though, came while redshirting his freshman year and learning the finer points of playing offensive tackle from offensive line coach Ed Warinner — and guys like Mayfield and Runyan.
“To see what he looked like from his first day to Saturday, it’s like night and day,” Mayfield said after the Middle Tennessee game. “It’s crazy to see how much he’s grown and how much he’s learned over this past year and I just can’t wait to see how much grows this year.”
A year later, compare that to how Hayes speaks about his younger teammates.
“Two younger guys that really impress me: (sophomore Karsen Barnhart)’s really stepped up since Jalen left, been playing really well,” Hayes said. “And then Zak Zinter does not look like a freshman at all. Zinter has really impressed everyone.”
Here he is, the guy who just a year ago was the young player being talked about, now doing the talking. It’s a role Hayes could never have expected this time last year, when Mayfield had two years of eligibility left.
But now, whenever Hayes’s next game comes, it’s a role he’ll be ready for.
“I was pretty nervous going into (the Middle Tennessee) game, not knowing what would happen, not knowing anything,” Hayes said. “This year, it feels completely different. I’m not scared.”