By Steve Kornacki / U-M
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Time flies.
Four years ago, quarterback Shea Patterson and center Cesar Ruiz were opening the season for IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Patterson had come from Louisiana and Ruiz from New Jersey to join a powerhouse team, and they contributed much to an undefeated season in 2015.
Now they are about to embark on their final season together as members of the No. 7-ranked University of Michigan football team, the home opener Aug. 31 with Middle Tennessee State finally close enough to almost touch.
Every offensive play begins with Ruiz snapping the ball to Patterson, and neither can wait for their first exchange to get the first play of a new season off and running.
“It’s about going out there and competing,” said Ruiz. “Everyone’s looking forward to the same thing: going out there and competing and putting all of our hard work out to show. We want to put up great offensive numbers and show execution as well.”
“I have the ball in my hands every single snap. It’s my job to own the operation and control the offense. So, I think I can do that to the best of my ability, and I know a lot of guys around me feel the same way … The sky’s the limit for this offense. It’s speed in space and we’re excited about it.”
Patterson keeps defenses guessing with his ability to run and pass very effectively, and Ruiz has the speed to pull out of the interior line into the open field and lower blocks. You will see him do more of that this season.”
Ruiz also loosens the vibe of the team.
“Man, Cesar’s probably the funniest dude on the team,” Patterson noted with a smile. “He’s a clown. I love him, though. It’s crazy. We were at IMG my senior year and he was my center. And then we transitioned here, and going into the last two years, that’s awesome.”
Both were All-Big Ten third-team selections last year. Patterson threw for 2,600 yards and completed 65 percent of his passes with a good ratio of 22 touchdowns to seven interceptions. He made things happen with his arm and feet, and picking up crucial third downs on the ground to spark a comeback against Northwestern was a highlight. Ruiz, 6-foot-4 and 319 pounds, was in his first full year as a starter on a line that developed into a team strength.
They strive to be even better this season — in the new spread, no-huddle offense of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis — and were asked where the unit’s most significant improvement has come.
“I’ve seen the intensity in practice pick up a lot more,” said Ruiz. “We always practice hard, but you’re seeing guys running around and flying to the ball. A lot of things are real fast now, and everybody’s just all in.
“And we have everyone back on the O-line, almost on the whole offense. It’s great and that chemistry’s coming right back. We’re about to have two years under our belt together, and that ‘s great.”
Patterson said, “As far as the team, I just like how things are going from spring to fall camp, and how close we are. I feel like it’s a big family in the building, and I like how this offense is being run.”
Patterson and safety Josh Metellus were recently named alternate captains by coach Jim Harbaugh, joining tri-captains Ben Bredeson (offensive guard), Carlo Kemp (defensive lineman) and Khaleke Hudson (viper) in the team’s leadership council.
When asked where he’d improved most, Patterson said, “Probably as a leader off the field. I think that was huge. We have so many great leaders on the team: Bredeson and Carlo and Khaleke and Josh and all those guys. And they’ve pushed me as well as far as being a leader.”
There’s plenty of pushing going on at Schembechler Hall.
Patterson said of redshirt sophomore Dylan McCaffrey, whom Harbaugh also has been very impressed with and mentioned as somebody worthy of seeing quarterback time: “I think we’ve done a good job of pushing each other.”
Gattis recently told reporters: “Shea’s playing lights-out right now. I was a little bit worried about him, because he spent so much time on the golf course this summer. So, I kind of wanted to see him calling me and asking questions. But he’s really playing lights-out. It just stands out, his playmaking ability, his ball placement, his footwork within the pocket. I’ve been really, really pleased. He’s been playing at a big-time level.
“So, he sets the standard and he really pushes the ball around on our offense, and the other players around him see it. One of the things we talked about going into this camp is accountability, making sure we hold everyone accountable on offense, and they’ve done a really nice job leadership-wise going in.”
The quarterback and center also are sold on Gattis, the co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach last year at Alabama, and the new system he brought in to replace the pro-style offense.
“We trust the offense and we trust coach Gattis and our offensive staff and coach Harbaugh,” said Patterson. “We just need to go out there and execute. It’s being familiar with what coach Gat wants, and it also helps having all those different weapons on the outside and the running backs and tight ends. You have playmakers all around you getting open, and the O-line doing their job and making it easier.”
Ruiz added, “I was excited (immediately). I just knew we were going to change our entire offense, and I like stuff like that. This offense allows me to expose my strengths a little more, too. I’m able to do a lot of different things I wasn’t doing last year in terms of how I’m blocking and being out in the open field doing a lot of things.”
Where has the athletic blocker and snapper made the most strides since last season?
“I’ve seen improvement really all over,” said Ruiz. “I’ve seen the most improvement with my football IQ. I put it upon myself to take my game to another level, and tried to improve a lot more and put more things on my plate. I already had a lot of things on my plate, but I wanted more on my plate.
“That way I’m able to make sure everything is all right. I can recognize more different things and feel more comfortable and not be shaken up or tighten up when things don’t look right. Right now, I’m very, very comfortable with where I am. There are still a lot of things I want to do and accomplish to improve my game.”
And, very soon, No. 2 will line up behind No. 51 to take the first offensive snap of the season, hoping they can experience a perfect season one more time, just as they had in high school.
“Of course we want to win the Big Ten,” said Patterson. “Of course we want to beat Ohio State and win the national championship. That’s the ultimate goal. Right now the process is just to take it each day, one day at a time …
“Our goal is to win every game.”