Ann Arbor – It was the summer of Juwann Bushell-Beatty’s freshman year in high school at Paramus Catholic in New Jersey.
Chris Partridge, now Michigan’s safeties coach and special teams coordinator, was the football coach at the school and spotted the 350-pound Bushell-Beatty dribbling a basketball with two hands, albeit not very athletically, as he worked his way down the court.
“And I said to the basketball coach, ‘Can I please just have him?’” Partridge said this week. “He said, ‘Go ahead.’ That’s the first time he ever stepped on the football field about two days later for summer practice. It’s been a long road because he had never played before and he was shorter as a freshman in high school but just as heavy.
“I just remember after his freshman year, I sat him down, ‘Does this kid want to keep playing?’ because it was a struggle for him early. When I sat him down, I’ll never forget this, I said, 'What do you want out of your football career? Do you want to continue this? What do you want?’ And he looked me in the eye and said, ‘I want to get a college scholarship.’ From that point on, I said, ‘OK, well you know what, it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work and more work than a lot of other people are going to have to do.’ But I knew that I could push him and he needed to be pushed.”
And now, Bushell-Beatty is nearing the end of his Michigan football career, a graduate student and starter at right tackle.
He is going home this weekend to New Jersey with the fourth-ranked Wolverines (8-1, 6-0 Big Ten) who will face Rutgers (1-8, 0-6) Saturday at HighPoint.com Stadium in Piscataway.
Michigan has nine players on its roster from New Jersey, and they’ve all worked their teammates for extra tickets – each player gets four – to accommodate family and friends.
Starting defensive end Rashan Gary said this week there’s a different “smell” in New Jersey. It’s the familiarity of the place where they grew up. It’s the smell of home, something that only the people who were raised there can detect and understand.
“I understand what he means but it’s hard to put in words,” Bushell-Beatty said this week, referring to Gary’s sentiment. “It’s just a different feel. Going to New Jersey, it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s being close to home. There’s a lot of thoughts in my mind when I think about going home to New Jersey.”
The Wolverines are enormous favorites heading into this game at Rutgers, but Bushell-Beatty has always been a sort of underdog. He started playing football fairly late and has blossomed this year in his final season at Michigan as a starter.
It was not a rosy beginning in the season opener. Not for him, not for the entire offensive line. But first-year offensive line coach Ed Warinner stuck with the starting lineup, and it has improved steadily since that loss at Notre Dame.
“We didn’t play well. I wasn’t satisfied with it,” Bushell-Beatty said of the season-opening performance of the offensive line. “From that week on, we took the bull by the horns and we knew we had to put better stuff on tape. There’s a certain level of expectation that we have for ourselves, and I think after that we held each other accountable and paid more attention to details, paid more attention to what’s important, studying the film, our techniques.”
The Wolverines’ run game production has improved with lead back Karan Higdon, who has rushed for 100 yards or more in seven straight games. Higdon each week has praised the offensive line, much maligned the last few years, first and foremost for making that possible.
Michigan is third in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 233.0 yards. Last season the Wolverines were among the worst nationally in tackles for loss allowed and sacks and now they are 28th and 37th, respectively.
Bushell-Beatty has taken advantage of finally having an increased role as a starter.
“I don’t think there was a specific point where I decided I had to turn things around,” he said. “It’s always been my mentality that I want to go out there and do great things. More opportunities were given to me this season than before, and I took advantage of them.
“Especially with this being my last season of college ball, I wanted to be able to prove to everybody – because I knew it already – I had to show everybody what I’m capable of. Week after week out going out there and doing it. That’s my plan.”
Partridge does not work directly with the offensive linemen, but he still knows what buttons to push.
During winter conditioning, it was made clear Bushell-Beatty, 6-foot-6 and 318 pounds, had to drop some weight.
Last year Partridge and running backs coach Jay Harbaugh had a bet on who could last longer on a vegan diet. That became Partridge’s inspiration to motivate Bushell-Beatty.
“I made a little wager with him: If he wasn’t to a certain weight by this date, he would have to go vegan,” Partridge said of Bushell-Beatty. “He’s like, ‘No way,’ so he cut his weight down. And I said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re at that weight, great, but what I meant is, in two months you have to be at this weight or you’re going to go vegan throughout the season.’ He got it. He made every goal. So he really didn’t want to go vegan.”
That wasn’t the only area where Bushell-Beatty sought to improve. He knew he needed to work on pass protection, and who better to go up against than Gary, also a Paramus Catholic graduate.
“My Jersey guy. My Jersey brother,” Gary said of Bushell-Beatty, before praising the strides the tackle has taken. “I know in pass pro when I go against him, he’s become more patient. Sometimes he’ll be aggressive and shoot his hands and I get them down and now it’s like, ‘What you going to do Rashan?’ Now I have to make the move and he counters it. It’s a great battle. He’s getting better and I’m happy to see what he’s doing.”
Bushell-Beatty said going against Gary in practice has given him the confidence to know he can go against anyone in the country.
“That’s one of the biggest things for me is focusing on being patient,” Bushell-Beatty said. “I pride myself on having quick feet and being able to adjust to rushes quickly. Sometimes it’s not all about that. Sometimes you have to be more patient in pass pro and be more precise and specific with your movements.”
It has been a long road for Bushell-Beatty at Michigan. Sometimes it takes longer to make a mark, but that’s another level of patience he has embraced. Sometimes that makes the reward that much sweeter.
“The biggest thing about playing college football and even playing football in general is how you finish,” he said. “You may not start off on the right foot. That’s how life works sometimes, but the way you approach it and the way you go about your business is the most important thing.”
The Jersey air will smell familiar when Bushell-Beatty arrives with the Wolverines. It will smell like home. His journey has come nearly full circle, and while he appreciates that notion, Bushell-Beatty knows he and his teammates have unfulfilled goals and many more weeks of football to play.
“It does cross my mind,” Bushell-Beatty said of returning to New Jersey, where his career began under Partridge’s tutelage. “From that starting point, when I played football my freshman year in high school, I want to continue the journey to the next level. It’s exciting, but the hay’s not in the barn so I try not to think about it too often.”
Michigan at Rutgers
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, HighPoint.com Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
Records: Michigan 8-1, 6-0 Big Ten; Rutgers 1-8, 0-6
Line: Michigan by 39