Michigan coach Lloyd Carr doesn’t like to single out players for mistakes.
But yesterday at his weekly press conference, he made an exception for right tackle Rueben Riley.
“I’m very disappointed in Rueben Riley,” Carr said, with his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Rueben and Jake Long have been bugging me since they got here to get a pass to them, to let them carry the ball. So I designed that play to get Rueben a pass, and I don’t like what he did with the ball. He lost five yards; he didn’t run with it, and so that play’s out of our playbook.”
Late in the second quarter of Saturday’s game against Wisconsin, quarterback Chad Henne fired a pass to the right side. A Badger defender deflected the ball into the hands of a surprised Riley. The fifth-year senior cradled the ball and dropped to the field, registering his first career reception for a nine-yard loss.
Carr won’t involve Riley in future passing plays, but the coach knows the Grand Rapids native has made a big impact in the trenches.
The offensive line was one of the many question marks for the Wolverines coming into the season. Jake Long anchored the left side at tackle, but the right side had a lot to prove. Riley, whose natural position is guard, played tackle in training camp, and junior Alex Mitchell filled in at guard.
“He has proven to his teammates, and I think he’s proven to himself that for us to be a good football team, we asked him to play tackle,” Carr said. “I think he’s really accepted that, and he’s playing well. He has really grown up, and I’m really pleased with him.”
Riley showed his toughness during the Notre Dame game two weeks ago. Late in the third quarter, Riley got kicked in the shin and had to visit the locker room for a Wolverine possession. But in such a big rivalry game, Riley wasn’t about to stay on the sideline.
The following Michigan drive, Riley trotted onto the field with the rest of the Wolverine offense.
“You don’t want to come out,” Riley said. “It was tough, and I knew whatever was going on, I was coming back in. That was the bottom line for me.”
But that wasn’t always the case.
Last season, Riley struggled while playing six games with casts on both hands. He fractured his thumbs and was forced to wear rubber casts. Riley was unable to do everything a healthy offensive lineman can do to fend off the opposing rush, such as punch or grab.
But ever the optimist, he saw the silver lining in the unfortunate injury.
“It was a catch-22 because I had no holding calls,” Riley said. “You can’t be too mad about that.”
After suffering the injuries, Riley constantly feared he wasn’t performing on the field the way he knew he could. The support from those around him was what eventually got him through the low point. Former Wolverine and current Washington Redskin Jon Jansen, who also dealt with a similar injury, told Riley he could continue to play effectively. Riley’s teammates also encouraged him, never letting him get too down on himself.
Now, Riley feels like the new season has brought him new life. Finally free of the casts, Riley anchors the right side of a Michigan offensive line that has helped running back Mike Hart run for over 100 yards in three of the first four games.
“It was hindering playing in two casts,” said Riley, whose dad was an offensive lineman at Mississippi Valley State. “To have those off and just feel healthy and feel rejuvenated (is a great feeling). It’s a new year and getting off to a great start, it feels great.”
Even though Riley’s recent foray as a wide receiver didn’t turn out as planned, Long defended his linemate’s actions.
“I didn’t know what was going on because the ball was just batted,” Long said with a chuckle. “I saw Rueben catch it and just fall. It was kind of funny at first, but I probably would have done the same thing.”
Notes: Wide receiver Mario Manningham won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award for the second consecutive week. Manningham caught two touchdown passes and racked up 113 receiving yards against Wisconsin last Saturday. The sophomore is just the second Michigan player to win the award two weeks in a row. The last Wolverine to do so was Heisman winner Desmond Howard in 1991.