Devin Funchess baffled the Air Force defense on Saturday, blowing past the bigger defenders with speed, outmuscling the smaller ones with size and electrifying everyone else with a performance well beyond his status as a freshman. He wowed everyone, it seemed, except for Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
“It looked like he played a good game,” Hoke said on Saturday.
“Can you expound?” one reporter asked.
“He was productive,” Hoke said with a smirk, and that was that.
The notoriously tight-lipped Hoke is not one to ramble, but he was particularly reserved when speaking about Funchess, or about the rest of his freshmen for that matter. And for good reason: Michigan’s reliance on the freshman class — 12 have played so far this year, with many playing significant minutes — threatens to undermine Hoke’s philosophy of leading through his seniors. On Monday, Hoke said he has never coached a team that played more freshmen than this year.
Hoke preaches often about the importance of seniors, and he uses the eldest members of the team as vehicles for his own coaching values. The seniors, unlike other classes, participate in leadership seminars, and Hoke took the seniors alone to train with Navy SEALs in California over the summer. When redshirt senior lineman Elliott Mealer addressed the media on Monday, he wore a blue polo with a winged helmet on the right breast and “TEAM 133” embroidered below. Above: “SENIOR.”
Yet the freshman class has begun to assert itself. On the field, that is not a bad thing; Michigan recruited them for a reason. On one play on Saturday, six Michigan defenders were freshmen.
“This is Michigan. They come to Michigan to play football, and if they play well enough in practice and in workouts, they’re gonna play,” said senior defensive tackle Will Campbell. “It just gives us more bullets to our gun.”
But Hoke’s senior-focused philosophy doesn’t work if the freshmen feel they own the team, this year or in the future, and so Hoke has been reluctant to heap praise on his freshman despite their impact on the team.
On Saturday, freshman linebacker Joe Bolden snuffed out a fake field-goal attempt from Michigan’s three-yard line late in the third quarter. Later, when Michigan needed a big stop on the Falcons’ second-to-last drive, it was another freshman linebacker, James Ross III, who was there.
After the game, one reporter asked Hoke what Bolden and Ross had proved against Air Force and what they needed to improve on. Hoke skipped the first part of that answer.
“I think the second part of the question, there’s a lot they need to get better at,” Hoke said. “From drops and coverages to footwork, all those things.”
He did praise Ross and Bolden for being “instinctive.”
Of course, Hoke’s apparent cynicism is tempered by experience. After the opener against Alabama, Hoke said the team had to “babysit” freshmen on their first road trip, and mocked that they had to get “on a big boy jet” and play “in a big boy stadium with a big boy team.”
Redshirt junior safety Thomas Gordon said he places a premium on communication when several freshmen are in the game. The college game can overwhelm.
“Those young guys being in the stadium for the first time, they get them deer eyes,” Gordon said.
Funchess’ immaturity didn’t show on the field, but off it he looked the part of the freshman. Speaking to the media for the first time after a game, Funchess fidgeted and slumped forward, his answers nervously robotic. One reporter jokingly addressed Funchess, who was paired up with junior receiver Devin Gardner during the press conference, simply as, “Devin.”
“Which Devin?” Funchess asked earnestly. He didn’t miss much on Saturday, but he had missed the joke.