Freshman TE shines

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- In a football program that focuses completely on the team and rarely singles out players, much less true freshmen, the compliments couldn't be held back for Michigan tight end Devin Funchess after Saturday's game against Air Force.

And while the compliments were plenty, at the same time Funchess' four catches for 106 yards and one touchdown seemed like a day at the office for Funchess to most of his upperclassman teammates. None seemed surprised to see the 6-foot-5, 229-pound freshman clobber his way into the Michigan record books.

"He didn't look like a true freshman at all when he was playing," redshirt junior left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "I'm excited about him."

"The future looks bright for him," redshirt junior safety Thomas Gordon said. "He has the [speed] to outrun linebackers, and he's bigger than defensive backs. That's to his advantage."

"He did a great job in camp, and obviously you guys got to see that during the game," senior center Elliott Mealer said. "He has shown that in camp. He has shown he's been a good player."

But had his Michigan teammates met him just two years ago at this time they would've never believed this. Because it wasn't until his junior year at Harrison High School that coach John Herrington finally got his athletic tight end to take the game seriously.

"He was a fun-loving kid who enjoyed football," Herrington said. "We always had high hopes for him, but he didn't really get too serious about it until he realized he had a chance to be really good."

Football had always just been fun for Funchess. As a 10-year-old, he started playing for the Westside Cubs in Detroit with current Michigan teammates Terry Richardson, Royce Jenkins-Stone and James Ross III.

Funchess wasn't a star, but he was a starter. And when they all were children, they used to make jokes about how he was so much bigger than everyone else, but somehow couldn't figure out how to tackle anyone intentionally.

"He was so excited about playing little league football and he really wanted to learn," Cubs director William Tandy said. "But I didn't know what he would be. At that point it was so developmental, but at that time I don't know if I would've been able to say that he'd be good."

For a while, that thought held true. Funchess didn't play on the varsity team during his first two years at Harrison, but Herrington saw the potential. And finally, during the fall camp of Funchess' junior year, Herrington began to notice something changed in his rangy tight end.

The junior had already decided he wouldn't be playing varsity basketball that winter so he could focus his efforts on football. Plus, there was an increased focus in the weight room and film room.

That season Harrison won the state championship and Funchess, along with Michigan freshman Mario Ojemudia and Michigan State freshman Aaron Burbridge, were dubbed as Harrison's "Big Three."

Again, the next camp, Herrington saw a renewed focus. With the expectations placed on him and the eyes that were on the Big Three, Funchess wanted to perform and repeat with a second state title. Instead, the Hawks were easily ousted by Birmingham (Mich.) Brother Rice in the first round of the state playoffs.

Despite Funchess' impressive senior season, Herrington knew Funchess was disappointed in himself because he had fallen short of his goals. Funchess was already committed to Michigan and Herrington saw Funchess preparing himself for the next level, using the defeat to fuel his future success.

And from the moment he arrived at the Wolverines' fall camp he started attaining that success. Players and coaches saw it in August. Last weekend, everyone saw it. And considering the progress he has made in the last two years, the Big Ten can expect to see a lot more of Funchess over the next few seasons.

"He is a highly skilled kid, yet he is a not a complete tight end yet -- he'll be the first one to tell you that," offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "He's really highly skilled. He can go get the ball, runs very well for a tight end, and when he gets a little bigger and stronger, I think he can be a complete player, but he's still not there yet."

He can't get there soon enough for the 2012 Wolverines, but his progress will be watched closely.