ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Devin Bush Jr. arrived in Michigan in January 2016, bursting with confidence and buoyed by the support of a family that included a former NFL football player and a college softball player.
What he didn’t have was a proper coat. The temperature hovered somewhere around 15 degrees on his first day of classes, and Bush wasn’t prepared for his first Michigan winter.
Football? He was prepared for that.
In the 23 months since he arrived at Michigan from Pembroke Pines, Fla. — and yes, he does have a winter coat now — Bush has transformed from a chubby kid from Florida with a family athletic legacy into one of the nation’s top middle linebackers.
The 5-foot-11, 232-pound sophomore became one of five finalists for the 2017 Butkus Award, given annually to country’s top linebacker.
“This was in the back of my head and something I worked towards, in the offseason,” Bush said last month. “To be back in there, it’s a great feeling.
“It was one of those things where it was just, be confident in myself and believe in my dreams. Just take it to them.”
‘That South Florida dog’
Bush’s metamorphosis into a nationally recognized linebacker didn’t begin in Ann Arbor. It began at home. Bush always has possessed an internal drive to be successful, a byproduct of a family filled with athletes.
Devin Bush Sr. is a defensive analyst at Michigan and a former standout safety at Florida State and in the NFL. Bush’s older sister, Deja, is a redshirt sophomore on the Florida State softball team. Bush’s oldest sister, Jazmin, ran track and played soccer. His mother, Kesha, is an elementary school teacher who constantly gives her children an analytical perspective on sports.
“Everything we do is a passion,” Deja Bush said. “When you have a passion and a purpose with what you do, you’re going to do it better because you want to get something out of it. You want to excel at it, and you want to get better and better and better at it.
“We want to be good. We want to dominate.”
Devin Bush had no choice but to do so. Because he was bigger than his teammates and opponents in youth football, he had to play in an age group with older children.
“Being a chubbier kid growing up, and then having that pressure of who your father was and living in that shadow, all of those things, in some kind of way, may have created a perfect storm of emotions and a drive that put him to this point,” said Stanford Samuels Jr., Bush’s former defensive coordinator at Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, Fla. “To a point that he wants to prove to the world that he’s a great athlete.”
Samuels saw a change in the linebacker as he began his junior year at Flanagan. He slimmed down, but he carried a different sort of weight — the weight of confidence, a certain ferociousness that Samuels calls “that South Florida dog.”
“I think I play with a chip on my shoulder, if that’s how you want to say it,” the soft-spoken Bush said. “Me, I just hate the other team, honestly. I don’t like playing against other teams.”
An impact at Michigan
Bush came out like a wrecking ball in Michigan’s opener against Florida this season. Maybe too much like a wrecking ball. Bush hit wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland on Florida’s first offensive drive, and officials initially called Bush for targeting.
Officials reversed the call. Bush sacked Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks on Michigan’s next defensive series. Bush harnessed that aggression to play one of his most efficient games, marking the start of a productive season. He leads the Wolverines with 94 tackles and 8 pass breakups as they prepare to face South Carolina on Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl.
In November, he was named a finalist for the Butkus Award, eventually awarded to Georgia’s Roquan Smith. When his father, Devin Sr., learned of the honor, he offered his son a low-key — yet well-earned — “congratulations.”
“He [doesn’t] try to give me too much praise,” Devin Bush Jr. said. “Just, ‘Good job, keep it up, keep working.’
“And him saying that, it means a lot. He’s been hard on me all my life, but when you get those moments from somebody you look up to, it means a lot to you.”
Reaching a standard
Samuels said he believes Bush’s decision to enroll early at Michigan nearly two years ago helped to foster his success. He had no doubt that Bush would thrive in the immediate structure of attending classes, waking up early for conditioning workouts and learning a new way of living.
He wasn’t surprised that his former player became a finalist for one of the nation’s top defensive honors.
“That’s the standard,” Samuels said. “In Devin’s situation, growing up in the setting he did, with everyone in his family being an elite athlete, the mindset is different. The expectations are different. At Flanagan, it’s just as high. Get it done. Dominate. When you have that type of mindset, you expect certain things.
“Regardless of what the outside world thinks — maybe do it when you’re a junior? Maybe see how you develop? Why wait? Dominate now.”