TAMPA — Outside a bowling alley in downtown of this coastal Florida city, James Hudson gazed longingly at Hillsborough Bay, perhaps pondering what could be in the future.
Hudson’s present is adding muscle and working on his technique — he admits he lunges too much toward defenders. That the 6-foot-5, 302-pound freshman is playing on the offensive line still is a source of surprise to many. The former Central Catholic standout was recruited to Michigan as a four-star defensive lineman, predicted to be another bruising force in defensive coordinator Don Brown’s merry-go-round of talent.
“I would definitely say my first year here was a learning process with the position switch,” Hudson said. “Coming in and working all summer on the defensive line, and then getting into camp and working on the offensive line, it was more emotional than physical.”
The sudden change came in August at the suggestion of Jim Harbaugh. He pulled Hudson aside and asked him how he’d feel about playing on the offensive side of the ball. Hudson’s initial reaction was one of resistance — he came to Michigan to sack quarterbacks and plug running lanes.
But after a brief walkthrough, Harbaugh and Tim Drevno saw immense potential in Hudson as an offensive lineman.
“James is playing a bunch of different spots,” offensive tackles coach Greg Frey said in November. “We rotate and see how he goes. He’s a wonderful kid, high upside. It’s going to be fun to watch him develop and see where he fits. He’s just such an athlete. Big guy, doing well. Right now he [projects as a tackle]. We’ll see how he keeps going.”
The most difficult aspect for Hudson was learning an entirely new playbook just a few months removed from digesting all of the defensive plays. But he admitted after a noteworthy high school career on the offensive line — Hudson played offense and defense for the Fighting Irish — thoughts about playing the same position in college crept into his mind. Hudson thought he could dominate — and cash paychecks.
“Coming off my senior year, there were always thoughts in the back of my head, you can make some money at this position,” said Hudson, who redshirted in 2017.
An annual tradition under Harbaugh is Christmas Camp, a nickname conjured up for Michigan’s bowl practices. Early December is reserved for underclassmen and players who occupy third- and fourth-string spots on the depth chart. The mere mention of bowl practices drew a wide-eyed smile from Hudson.
“Christmas Camp is where I feel I stuck out the most,” he said. “I really locked in and learned everything I needed to know for next season. I had one-on-one time with coach Drevno. He just told me that if I keep doing what I’m doing, great things are going to happen to me in the future. That’s what I believe. I know I can be a great offensive tackle.”
Poor offensive-line play has plagued Michigan in recent seasons. The Wolverines ranked among the worst teams in the nation in 2017, allowing 36 sacks and 83 tackles for loss. They lose stalwart Mason Cole, who started all 51 games of his career splitting time at left tackle and center, and center Pat Kugler. But a youth movement on the line feels imminent, and it’s a development coaches are observing with enthusiasm.
Hudson, Cesar Ruiz, Chuck Filiaga, Andrew Stueber, and Joel Honigford represent a new wave of linemen, along with junior-to-be Ben Bredeson, who’s already a mainstay, Michael Onwenu, Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Stephen Spanellis, and Nolan Ulizio.
“Very good growth,” Drevno said in December. “The future is bright here at Michigan for the offensive line, which we’re really excited about, for the athleticism, the initial quickness — all the things you look for in the skill-set of a great offensive lineman with their physicality.”
As a reserve, Hudson got a quick introduction to what opposing Big Ten defensive lines will present. The warning came in the form of UM’s Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary, among the league’s top defensive linemen and his practice opposition throughout the 2017 season.
“It’s tough,” Hudson said. “They aren’t doing anything but getting me ready for next year. That’s how I look at it. I just look at it as a learning experience and bettering myself to help the team win next season.”
Spring practice and fall camp will include multiple position competitions, and Hudson will be part of one at tackle. It was left tackle where Hudson protected his high school quarterback. He could occupy the line’s most important position again in college.
The 2018 season opener at Notre Dame always felt like it would be Hudson’s debut. It just wasn’t expected to come on the offensive line. But that’s the locale of his early career — and he’s a couple good months of practice from being a starting offensive lineman.
“I definitely believe I can be in that starting lineup against Notre Dame,” Hudson said. “That’s what I’m pushing for. My goal for 2018 is to be starting when we go down to South Bend.”
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