ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Cesar Ruiz didn’t arrive in this world crouched in a three-point stance with a football in his right hand, but it didn’t take long for him to feel comfortable in that position.
“I think I was really born to play center. It comes natural,” said Ruiz, the 18-year-old Michigan sophomore with the easy smile who last season started five games at right guard while fifth-year senior Patrick Kugler started every game in the middle of the offensive line.
“I never played any other position growing up as a kid. That was the only thing I played,” Ruiz said. “I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Ruiz will have the ball back in his hand this season, snapping to whoever ends up at quarterback for Michigan. Kugler has now become Coach Koogs, a graduate assistant on the Wolverines staff who will continue to help Ruiz reach the potential that earned him a 4-star rating in high school — and a ranking as the No. 1 center in the country in the Class of 2017.
Getting his feet wet
His audition at right guard, with some action as an extra lineman and on special teams as well, primed Ruiz for this season. He’s quickly earned the trust of new offensive line coach Ed Warinner and his teammates.
“[I coached] two starting centers in the National Football League that both started as rookies,” Warinner said. “He has that kind of ability someday to get to that point. Not yet. He’s just a young kid, but if he keeps going I know what they look like. I’ve coached them and he can be really good here. If he keeps doing what he’s doing he can be the quarterback of the O-line.”
The center starts off every play even before the snap. He’s entrusted with making blocking assignment calls at the line of scrimmage, depending on the defensive alignments he sees. Hike. Now the play is in motion.
“Playing right guard really allowed me to get my feet wet,” Ruiz said. “What it did for me is let me experience what it’s like to play in the game, what it’s like to be a starter, how to take control and stuff like that.”
He watched and learned from Kugler. Ruiz is from Pennsauken, N.J., but he spent two seasons at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., playing against some of the best scholastic competition in the country. That still doesn’t compare to life in the Big Ten.
“Pat was our coach last year, too,” said junior left guard Ben Bredeson. “He was helping us all and now that he’s an official coach it’s definitely easier because he’s got that familiar voice. He knows the guys very well, obviously playing with all of us, so he knows our strengths and weaknesses.
“He’ll definitely help Cesar and the interior guys with calls and different looks. We’re excited to have him, and I know Cesar’s real excited to have him.”
New lineup on display
Ruiz didn’t get his first start until Nov. 4 against Minnesota. Michael Onwenu started the first eight games, but a lower-leg injury suffered late against Rutgers the week prior gave Ruiz an opportunity to play. He was part of an offensive effort that produced a season-high 371 yards, including running back Karan Higdon equaling a career high with 200 yards rushing and Chris Evans setting a career high with 191 yards.
Onwenu returned to start the Outback Bowl against South Carolina at left guard in place of Bredeson, who was injured. The plan this season is to have Ruiz at center with Bredeson to his left and Onwenu to his right. Redshirt sophomore Stephen Spanellis is expected to be a primary backup at all three spots.
The public will get a look at the lineup for the first time Saturday at Michigan’s spring game.
“It was different not having the ball in my hands. Believe it or not, it was kind of weird not having the ball in my hands,” Ruiz said. “Big Mike is doing a great job. I didn’t really get a chance to play alongside Mike ever last year. Playing alongside him in practice, you get to see how powerful and strong he is, and how sneaky athletic he is for his size.”
Ruiz is listed at 6-foot-4, 316 pounds. His body has transformed dramatically from when he arrived on campus a year ago as an early enrollee weighing 345 pounds. His knowledge of the playbook and his duties at center also have transformed.
“He’s one of the strongest guys on the team. Also, he’s very athletic. He gets in there at center, doesn’t blink, he gets us in the right protection, the right call. He gets everything done,” said redshirt junior Jon Runyan Jr., one of several candidates competing for the starting tackle positions. “He’s able to change direction. I know with O-line, everything is about a five-yard radius, but he’s able to change direction in that five yards really quick. He’s one of the fastest of the O-linemen, so that’s helpful when you’re playing center.”
Last season was a learning experience for Ruiz. He got his feet wet, as he said. No one on the offensive line was pleased with their overall play last season, and the unit has vowed to play with an aggressive, chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.
That includes Ruiz.
“If I play this year like I did last year, I’m not really helping the team. I’m not helping anybody. I have to make sure I’m improved from what I was last year,” Ruiz said. “You don’t like hearing [criticism]. As an offensive lineman they’re blaming everything on you. It’s not something you want to hear. When you keep hearing it, keep hearing it, it motivates you.
“They’re not going to say that about us this year. I can guarantee that. That’s our mindset. They’re not going to point fingers at us.”