ANN ARBOR, Mich. — On one hand, Nate Schoenle is just happy to be at Michigan. He’s giddy in some ways, living out a wildly vivid dream that has resided in his head since childhood. Coached by Jim Harbaugh, wearing a winged helmet, running out of the tunnel at The Big House — a real dream come true.
On the other hand, the wide receiver has earned a rightful spot on the Wolverines football team. He has no reason to pinch himself — he has done the necessary work, therefore earning well-deserved praise from coaches and teammates. He’s not lucky. He’s benefiting from an undying personal drive.
“I say that I learn something from Nate every day,” said sophomore receiver Kekoa Crawford, Schoenle’s roommate in 2016. “That’s just one of those dudes you just learn from every day — something he does, you can apply to your game in one way or another. His work ethic is just crazy… crazy…”
In the facilities before everyone else, and often one of the last to leave for the day.
“He’s watching film, he does it all,” Crawford continued. “He’s really trying to make his mark — and I feel like he’s going to do that, too. He’s going to have the opportunity to do it.”
Specific mentions, which carry the most weight, have come from Harbaugh, who has consistently discussed the second-year walk-on since addressing media in late July at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago.
A hard worker, Harbaugh said. Someone who climbed the ranks and held his own with a quartet of top-25 freshmen receivers and a stock of quality returning wideouts. It’s real, though.
Harbaugh’s words, the attention — everything has hit so fast for Schoenle, who prepped at Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard and appeared during the season opener in 2016.
“It was definitely a shock at first, because, you know… just for the first time,” said the 6-foot-2, 185-pound sophomore. “It never really was like that before. It caught me off guard. But you know now, I’m hearing a little bit. Some people come up and say, ‘Ohhh, I saw this article,’ or ‘I heard this one news conference,’ so I’m getting a little more used to it — but it’s still exciting, it’s still fresh, you know, for me.”
Has intra-squad fame changed his approach? Has the newfound attention altered his routine or influenced his habits?
“Not really. I’d say I still kind of… I still kind of wear that… you know, being a walk-on, you have to have that chip on your shoulder, in that regard,” said Schoenle, who commanded attention with solid catches during the 2017 spring game. “I still bring that to practice every day. I still have that fire every day…”
Of course, there were doubts. At one time, he wasn’t quite sure if he belonged — that is, until he proved himself during winter and spring workout sessions. Then, while on the scout team in 2016, he dramatically improved his skills against All-American Jourdan Lewis and All-Big Ten honoree Channing Stribling.
Learning the ropes and rules of engagement from those guys, not to mention the rest of Michigan’s all-league defensive backfield, greatly shaped Schoenle’s current position.
Put it into perspective: He’s not just a walk-on. He’s a walk-on who has been trotted out to meet with the media — and not because of his story, but because of his actual play when compared to Harbaugh’s star-studded 2017 group of Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins, Oliver Martin and Tarik Black.
Satisfying, to say the least.
“Definitely. It’s definitely fun. The receivers, we’re a tight-knit group — and we all make each other better, too,” Schoenle said. “That’s what I’ve noticed, even with the young freshmen that haven’t been here as long — they still bring some experience to the room. We’re always learning from each other, so it’s great. I do enjoy it a lot.”
Once upon a time, Schoenle dreamed of making the varsity team at Gabriel Richard. As a sophomore, he felt ready to step up to the next level with the Fighting Irish.
However, he had to wait another year, which turned out to be a humbling experience that has fueled his desire to walk on at Michigan rather than accept a football scholarship to play at Division II Hillsdale in southern Michigan.
Dreams can come true. Maybe not on the first try, but the “try” and “want” matter most.
“I was definitely excited. It was a big goal of mine when I was a sophomore in high school, was to make varsity. I was really disappointed (that I didn’t),” he said. “That sophomore to junior offseason, I definitely really put a lot work in, came back, and was able to start for my high school team during my junior year.
“And that was really significant for me, and we had a great season that year…”
Self-aware as they come, Schoenle values his tenacity and embraces the grind. He likes being viewed as a lunch-pail guy who approaches every practice with a make-or-break attitude.
“You don’t forget where you came from, and the hard work you put in — that doesn’t just go away…” Schoenle said.
Neither does where he’s going — which, right now, appears to be Michigan’s receiver rotation, and to AT&T Stadium for a highly anticipated season opener Sept. 2 versus the Florida Gators in Arlington, Texas.
“It’s going to be an unreal feeling. It’s something that Coach (Harbaugh) was talking about earlier; he was talking about visualizing, you know, being there,” Schoenle said, eyes wide and hands in motion. “We don’t want to just run out there and just be all, you know, caught up in the moment and the lights, and everything. Just kind of visualize now. It’s something that I’m thinking of now; it’s definitely going to be a special moment…”
Yeah, it’s a cool walk-on story, but don’t peg Schoenle as just that. In attitude, skill and work, he’s proven to be at the same level as those riding scholarships.
Like everything else he’s earned in football, he’ll likely find a scholarship, too.