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Hard work pays off for Chelsea’s Michigan football players

ANN ARBOR — When Michigan’s Hunter Neff and Joe Taylor returned to the locker room after the team’s season-opening win over Colorado State on Sept. 1. 3, they got quite a surprise when they checked their phones.

The two received copious text messages after the Chelsea High walk-ons each saw the pitch in the game and made an impact. Neff, a senior, had an 8-yard reception on an out route in his first career snap, while Taylor, a sophomore, played on special teams and returned a kickoff from 24 yards in the fourth quarter.

“I’m really proud of these guys,” Chelsea manager Josh Lucas said of his former players. “Having these two guys there and what they meant to our football program both on and off the field was great to watch. The night game (against Hawaii) I was with the Joe’s dad and Hunter’s dad in the parent’s tailgate, so it was nice to see those guys and see how happy they were knowing their boys were playing there. It’s really cool.”

Not only was stepping onto the court rewarding for Neff and Taylor because of the large number of family members, friends and former teammates and coaches watching them intently, but also because of the work they put in. during the off-season to seize this opportunity.

Neff, a senior, missed a game his first two years in Ann Arbor, then suffered a torn ACL during spring training in 2021, sidelining him for the rest of the season. . The 6-foot-3, 231-pound was always a die-hard Michigan fan and often attended games growing up, but he wondered if the injury might ruin his dream of playing at the Big House.

Neff’s rehabilitation process took 10 months to regain his full strength, and he said it was worth living his dream. He had two snaps against Colorado State and had four more in last week’s win over UConn, but it was his first he will always remember.

“I had so much adrenaline there,” he said. “It was almost like an out of body experience.

“It was much more of a coming back process than I expected. I don’t think anyone is really prepared for what it takes to get back to where you were before. But it was definitely a rewarding process. It took a lot of work, but it was a blessing.

Meanwhile, Taylor, a sophomore, only appeared in one game last season and went undressed for most of them, including Michigan’s first win over State. Ohio since 2011. Not being in uniform while celebrating victory has fueled the 5-foot-10, 185-pound sophomore throughout the offseason.

“I think it was kind of like a turning point for me,” Taylor said. “I remember sitting on the court during the Ohio State game thinking, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to get dressed.’ I never wanted to have that feeling of not being able to dress again, so I made sure that I was going to make it. I have to make sure that next year I will have a role.

Michigan’s Joe Taylor celebrates after making a tackle against Hawaii on September 29. 11. (Photo used with permission from Michigan Photography)Michigan Photography

Taylor has earned a big one this season on special teams. He’s third on the team with 47 special teams snaps and is part of the kickoff, kick return and kick return units. He also has the team’s third-highest special teams rating, according to Pro Football Focus.

The 2020 Ann Arbor News Offensive Player of the Year also played his first offensive snap to receiver against UConn and made a key block on the punter to create a seam for AJ Henning, who returned the punt 61 yards for a touchdown.

“He had a big impact,” Henning said of Taylor. “The fact that he’s in the receiver’s room and he just sees what he’s doing on special teams, the effort and the attitude that he’s playing with – one of the games of the last week – he completely went through a guy. You just see that and you see the effort he plays with, that was awesome. He took care of the (punter) for me, gave him an extra pat on the back for having handled that.

On last week’s “Inside Michigan Football” radio show, head coach Jim Harbaugh said Taylor reminded him of Caden Kolesar, a former extra who became one of Michigan’s top special teams players. , as evidenced by his blocked punt last week.

“I just stood by his side,” Taylor said of Kolesar. “I just try to watch him hone his craft and then learn from him. He was probably one of the biggest influences I’ve had. He really gets people to buy special teams. He’s had a career here in Michigan right next to special teams. He’s been a huge help in getting me to where I am today and where I want to be down the road.

Neither Taylor nor Neff expected to play football in Michigan at the start of the recruiting process. Neff was originally committed to Lawrence Tech before Harbaugh offered him a spot on the team as a favorite extra, while Taylor was committed to joining the Wolverines baseball team. But an injury to his pitching arm and a phone call from former Michigan football analyst Steve Casula changed his mind.

Both believe they made the right decisions, especially as they can play together again for the first time since being teammates at Chelsea in 2018, when they finished one win away from a title. State.

“It was awesome,” Neff said of Taylor. “We’re good family friends too. His dad was our strength coach at Chelsea, and he was like a father figure growing up. So watching Joe progress and step onto the pitch has been just awesome to watch.

Meanwhile, Lucas relishes every moment he can watch his former standouts play for one of the top five teams in the country just a few miles away.

“Hunter worked hard just to give himself an opportunity to come back,” he said. “Just being there is one thing, but doing a take at the Big House in front of 100,000 people is another.

“For Joe, right off the bat I thought he was one of the best players in high school football, and now it shows in Michigan. Every week just keeps building for him. I’m just really proud of him and his work ethic and I just put my head down and get to work every day. Nothing was ever given to him. He had to earn all those things that he gets.

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