Jake Ryan has taken just two years to evolve into a pillar of Michigan’s defense.
In 2011, he made a little noise in the Big Ten as a freshman. As a sophomore in 2012, he quickly turned that subtle grumble into a blaring siren, alerting others of his presence on the field.
A career as a national-level college football star was born, and Ryan was a well-oiled machine looking to push the Wolverines defense to unseen heights under coordinator Greg Mattison.
And then it happened—the worst-case scenario. During spring practice, the 6’3”, 240-pound redshirt junior tore his ACL. Due to the nature of the injury, serious doubt was cast on his chances of making a timely return. However, like teammate Fitzgerald Toussaint’s journey back to the huddle, Ryan’s recovery has been anything but slow.
“By the trainer’s admission, he has been running, he does the walk-throughs with us,” Mattison told Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press.
Scheduled for a mid-October return, Ryan will have to be well past the walk-through phase when he rejoins his team. By that time, the Wolverines will be about two weeks into the conference gauntlet, gearing up for Michigan State, which has won four of the past five meetings.
When that time comes, Michigan can’t be gentle with Ryan. When he's at full capacity, he’s expected to immediately produce. He'll likely need time to adjust.
By then, redshirt sophomore Brennen Beyer or senior Cam Gordon could have the replacing-Ryan trick down to a science.
And then what?
In light of a speedy recovery, Ryan could be 100 percent healthy by October, if not earlier. If he’s running now, in-depth football activities could soon follow.
Oct. 12 is an interesting date on Ryan's road to recovery. It's when Michigan plays Penn State at Happy Valley. It'll be an early test for a defense looking for huge contributions from Beyer and Gordon.
If they fail to live up to expectations prior to meeting Penn State, giving reps to Ryan before heading to Michigan State on Nov. 2 would be important. If they play above expectations, giving Ryan more time to rest may be in order. With another week of practice, Ryan would, in theory, be in better shape for his in-state rival.
Let's say that Beyer and Gordon aren't cutting it. In true star fashion, Ryan would take back his job and restore normalcy to the defense.
Storming in, Ryan would excel against the Nittany Lions and spearhead the defense as it looks ahead to the Spartans, Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio State.
That's the happy ending to this tale.
Athletes push themselves every day. That’s why players such as Ryan succeed. If he could, he’d probably participate in practice now, with players in pads.
The obvious issue of concern is of one of re-aggravation; another tweak of the ACL could be a devastating blow to Ryan’s future. For that reason alone, it’s important that he doesn't rush back before he’s ready.
The Wolverines need Ryan—that’s not the question. However, they need him at full tilt, not at half speed. When healthy, he adds a higher level of energy to the defense. But Beyer and Gordon are capable, too. Mattison may decide not to disrupt a good thing, even if Ryan is chomping at the bit to go.
This past season, Ryan showed that he was the team's best run-stopper. But Beyer, the understudy, has shouldered responsibility well thus far.
In spring, teammate James Ross, a weak-side linebacker, praised Beyer's take-charge attitude. He told MLive.com's Kyle Meinke:
He’s becoming a leader on the team, and a leader for me. For him to take on that challenge … and go right into it, and not say too much about it, and actually play well at it too, shows me he’s a leader. I’m looking up to him.
Competition compounds Ryan's challenge of getting back to the field. Not only will he face the pressure of performing, but he may have a hard time reclaiming his starting position.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81