By Richard Retyi, U-M Athletic Media Relations
At six-foot-four sitting in a small office chair with his massive hands knitted in his lap, John Ferrara looks like a football lineman. When he speaks, his Staten Island accent is strong, lending to the workmanlike persona that surrounds him.
He's well spoken, honest about his abilities and eager to sacrifice for the best of the team. These are all helpful traits for the Wolverine making the biggest position change this season, moving from Michigan's deep roster of defensive linemen to the thin stable of offensive linemen on the squad.
Due to injury and attrition, Michigan started four different combinations of players on the offensive line through the first five contests in one of college football's youngest offensive groups. It's starting quarterbacks, top two running backs, starting tight end, starting center and leading receiver are all playing in their first collegiate seasons. In the midst of this, John Ferrara switched from offense to defense in fall camp to try to help this young squad and the coaches could not have picked a better man for the job.
John was a defensive standout at Monsignor Farrell High School in Staten Island, N.Y., tallying 28 sacks in his final two years of prep football. He also saw limited time at tight end on goal-line and short-yardage situations, catching a handful of touchdown passes in his career. He was recruited to Michigan as the seventh-best player in the state of New York, redshirting his first season before playing in all 13 games in 2007.
In the fall, with the offensive line thinned by injury, the coaches decided that John would be a good candidate to switch over so number 94 became number 74 and John's offensive career in college began.
"Coach Shafer told me that he was happy with my play in camp, but they needed me on the other side of the ball," said John. "I did whatever I could to help the team."
Though a member of the defense for two seasons, John was no stranger to his teammates on the other side of the ball. John roomed with offensive lineman Perry Dorrestein in the dorms and spent as much time with the offensive linemen as he did his defensive counterparts.
"It was a smooth transition," said John, "and they were happy to have me over there. The offensive linemen took me under their wings and they've been great about teaching me what I need to know to succeed."
John has not noticed much of a difference in how he prepares for games.
"On both sides, you want to come off the ball as hard as you can," said John. "I'm not a guy who gets crazy overhyped. I try and stay focused on what I have to do on each play and play whistle to whistle."
The biggest challenge has been technique.
"On defense, sometimes you can get away with poor technique by playing with a lot of effort," said John. "On offense, it's all technique. You have to take proper steps and have proper hand placement at all times."
John learned some of the challenges he would face during the first offensive start of his career vs. Wisconsin.
"It was difficult to adjust to pass blocking because you want to be physical and go after somebody, but you have to sit back a little bit," said John. "Technique is the biggest difference. On defense, you can get away with being poor at technique by playing with a lot of effort. I like run blocking more than pass blocking. I prefer double teaming somebody or hitting a linebacker. It's fun to be physical and drive someone off the ball and watching the running back go past you knowing you cleared the way for him."
John's career spent on the defensive side of the ball has helped him in his transition, as has his mental approach to the game.
"I was a good technician on defense, which I developed because I wasn't as athletic as some guys," said John. "I was always good using my hands, and good technique has helped me out a lot on offense. During games, I can see things in the defense that helps me out, like picking out potential blitzers or reading a defensive lineman."
John also seems to be thriving in the all-for-one mindset that is essential to any successful offensive line. Sometimes it can be difficult for five men to work together towards a common goal knowing that there will be little or no individual attention for a job well done.
"Playing defense has more individual glory," said John. "If you make a tackle or get a sack they'll say your name but if you make a good block on offense they're not going to say, good block by this player'. You have to be unselfish to play offensive line but it's still getting after people. As long as I'm making contact and knocking somebody around that's all I need. I have fun doing that.
"We want to put the best five out there every game. We get after it and we trust each other and don't fight about it amongst ourselves. Obviously everyone wants to play, but we also know who has been doing better in practice. There aren't a lot of jealousies. We're a tight unit and play as hard as we can."
Though it's been a few years since his days playing tight end in short-yardage situations at Monsignor Farrell High, John can still draw up a few plays for the coaches whenever they have time.
"I was trying to tell Coach Rodriguez about my pass-catching days this fall," said John. "I was still wearing my old number and playing tight end on the field goal team and I told him if we fake or have a mishandled snap I'm ready to go catch the ball. We changed my number, but I reminded coach we still had these hands. I can change my jersey right before the play or maybe use a tear away number."
A grin dominates John's face as he mimes tearing off a number and catching a pass with his lineman's hands.
"I work on him every day," he continues. "Maybe a tackle eligible. Or a throw-back screen to me. Something like that. Maybe you could put a word in for me"