A far cry from last February’s turnout of 60-plus students, a small group of 26 University students gathered at Schembechler Hall Friday afternoon to showcase their skills in front of the Michigan football coaching staff.

Will Moeller/Daily
Jordan Kovaks tries out for the Michigan Football Team at the Oosterbaan Field House on Friday, January 16th 2009.

But Rich Rodriguez and his coordinators learned more about the difficulties of playing football with a tennis ball than what the potential walk-ons could bring to the team.

With their hectic schedule, including recruiting visits and last week’s American Football Coach’s Association conference in Nashville, Tenn., Rodriguez and his staff convened together in Ann Arbor for the open walk-on tryout. Because of early-season NCAA restrictions, which prohibit coaches from participating in certain drills, the staff couldn’t use actual footballs in the tryout.

“I feel bad for the kickers, punters and specialists that came today,” Rodriguez said. “We had to send them home. They’ll come back and tryout for spring ball, because with NCAA rules (we couldn’t use a ball today).”

Instead, wideouts, the most represented position at the tryout, ran routes and tried — and most times failed — to catch tennis balls thrown by offensive coordinator Calvin MaGee or one of the three quarterback hopefuls. But MaGee still used the exercise to weed out the competition. Many potential walk-ons rounded off cuts in post and corner routes or didn’t actively fly back to the ball on comebacks.

The small balls did provide some excitement, though. In the waning minutes of the hour-long session — cut down from 90-minute tryouts last year — Kinesiology junior Zac Baker ran a deep post route, dove and made a spectacular one-handed grab, barrel-rolling on the Oosterbaan Fieldhouse turf.

The coaching staff erupted in “Yeah, Bakes!” cheers for Baker, a manager for the team the last two seasons. The catch must have made an impression on Rodriguez, because Baker, along with four others, was contacted yesterday and asked back for further evaluation and training. It was the first time in three auditions that Baker has made it past the first round of evaluations in Rodriguez’s tryouts.

John Guerriero, Patrick Collins, Jack Kennedy and Jordan Kovacs (who ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the tryout) are the other four.

Unlike last year, when the walk-ons immediately went through academic and health checks and began working with strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis, those who made the cut this weekend will be asked to continue working out on their own to get in shape for further evaluation before March.

On the first day of spring practice, the coaches will see what the walk-ons can do with a real football. And that’s when this crop of potential Wolverines will be given a chance to make the 2009 roster.

“That’s a couple months, but it gives them some time to work on a couple things and get ready to go,” Rodriguez said. “Today was just a small part of our walk-on program, but we’re really trying to be more aggressive overall with it. You know, identify guys throughout the state, throughout the country that maybe could be the next (redshirt sophomore fullback) Mark Moundros, who was an outstanding player who walked on here.”

After the tryout, Rodriguez emphasized that the most important thing about coming to Michigan — whether the students made the team or not — was earning a degree from the University. But talking to the tryoutees afterwards, Michigan football clearly held a special place with them.

“The other (team) managers, they all feel the same way about this as I do,” Baker said following the tryout. “This is our passion. This is what we grew up on. This is, like, Michigan football.”

For Kovacs, the opportunity is a dream come true. His father was a walk-on Wolverine when he attended the University. Kovacs was asked back after last year’s tryout but wasn’t allowed to continue after the coaches found out about a knee surgery Kovacs had in January.

And if Kovacs continues to impress the coaches, he might even see the Michigan Stadium field on game day.

“Once you’re good enough to win with, you’ll play,” Rodriguez said. “Whether you’re a former walk-on, a walk-on, a fifth-year senior9 or whatever, the best guys will play.”

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