The Schmitz family home in Flossmoor, Ill., has an above-ground pool with a basketball hoop attached on one side.
But don’t be fooled. While that combo might appear to be relaxing place to cool off on a hot summer day and casually take a few shots, that’s not the case when John Michael and his younger brother Jack jump in to play a no-blood, no-foul version of swimming pool basketball.
“It’s no holds barred once you get in the pool, and you throw a basketball in there,” Jack Schmitz told the Pioneer Press “We’re drowning each other, scratching, clawing. You do everything to get a bucket.”
Gophers senior John Michael Schmitz has become one of the best centers in college football over the past few years. He is in contention for two national awards — the Rimington Trophy (best center) and the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman) — All-American teams as well as Big Ten offensive lineman of the year.
Schmitz will play his final regular-season collegiate game in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe against Wisconsin at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
He has been lauded as the highest-graded center in the county, according to Pro Football Focus. While he excels in run blocking, he has only allowed one sack and two pressures in 267 passing plays this season, per PFF.
At 6-foot-3 and roughly 310 pounds, Schmitz projects to be an early-round NFL draft pick next April. When draftniks are putting together his profile, assessing his body of work and projecting his potential at the next level, the fierce competition with Jack and their friends in pool basketball is an unexpected window into how he has become one of the best.
Jack Schmitz, at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, is no slouch himself. Like John Michael, he lettered in multiple sports at Homewood-Flossmoor High School and went on to play tight end at Indiana State in FCS and then at Division III Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.
Their mother, Deborah Schmitz, said when her boys would play pool basketball at hotels on family vacations, outsiders would be startled at how relentless John Michael and Jack would be.
“It was a time that they would just let everything go and just be a kid,” Deborah said. “It’s just fun. And they were with their family.”
John Michael is more reserved than his brother, but he smirked at the mention of the concocted sport, adding only that games would “get a little scrappy” and “you might have some scratches here and there.”
Schmitz played offensive tackle for a quality high school program but did not receive much recruiting interests from colleges. P.J. Fleck and offensive line coach Brian Callahan recruited Schmitz to join them at Western Michigan and projected he would play either guard or center at the Mid-American Conference school.
But when Fleck accepted the Minnesota job in January 2017, he immediately brought Schmitz with him to the Big Ten.
“When you evaluate this level, it was the toughness factor,” Fleck said. “It was his determination. It was his attitude. He was a strong kid naturally.”
Schmitz redshirted in 2017, played mostly special teams in 2018 and was a part of the offensive line’s rotation through most of 2019 before cracking the starting lineup toward the end of that 11-2 season.
“Then we realized he was the straw that stirs the drink,” Callahan said. “He kind of put it together with his attitude, his demeanor, how he carried himself and, obviously, his talent.”
Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca called Schmitz a Tasmanian devil. “I’m not sure he knew what a Tasmanian devil was,” he said. “I was just thinking about the old cartoon that I used to watch as a kid, and that was what he reminded me of in the way he played every play.”
Ciarrocca said Schmitz also has grown into a “great technician” with an attention to detail. Schmitz said that can come down to the finer points with tucking his backside hand on outsize zone reach blocks.
Callahan demands that Schmitz be an extension of himself on the field to communicate line calls and make sure all five linemen are playing as one.
If Schmitz wins an individual award, it would be a program first since Matt Spaeth won the 2006 Mackey Award for best tight end. Schmitz would be Minnesota’s first Rimington or Outland winner since Greg Slinger in 2005.
If the seven finalists for the Outland Trophy offer a window into how the Rimington Award goes, Schmitz’s competition for the best center award is Michigan’s Olusegun Oluwatimi. The Rimington’s selection process factors in Pro Football Focus grades, and Schmitz’s overall mark of 93.1 is much better than Oluwatimi’s 77.3
Before Callahan spoke to the Pioneer Press last week, a scout with an NFL team was in his office at the Larson Football Performance Center. Here’s Callahan’s general message to Schmitz’s potential future employers: “He loves the game and works at it. He’s an old-school blue collar, tough guy that’s got a lot of talent.”
The Gophers had a 16-year drought without an offensive lineman drafted until last year when Daniel Faalele was taken by the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth round. Schmitz is projected to go well before that, and Fleck said “there is no doubt in my mind” he’s worth a first-round pick.
Another reflection of Schmitz’s success is the Gophers have been allowing on average less than one sack per game, and with tailback Mo Ibrahim, they are averaging 229 rushing yards per game. Both marks rank in the top 10 in the nation.
“I really don’t thrive off my own success,” Schmitz said. “I have goals and stuff that I want to achieve down the road, but I’m not focused on that. Right now, I’m focused on the team.”
Deborah watches John Michael’s interviews with media members and can tell he doesn’t want the spotlight. “He just gets very nervous that he’s going to say something wrong or it’s not going to come out the way he wants it because he’s all about his team,” she said.
Deborah pointed to John Michael’s excitement when freshman running back Zack Evans scored his first career touchdown earlier in November against Rutgers. “You could just see in John Michael’s face how proud he is; that’s him,” she said.
John Michael’s softer side includes how often the 24-year-old telephones his mother.
“He calls me every night still,” Deborah said.
Wait, every night?
“Every single night,” she replied. “He might have missed one. Maybe two max. He calls to say good night every night.”
In youth football, the younger Jack played up with his big brother’s teams. During one game, Jack remembers being lined up against “this little guy.”
“I didn’t think much of him, but he was just an absolute animal,” Jack recalled. “He came up to me and was, like, growling, and he knocked me on my butt.”
After the play, Jack told John Michael what happened and the two of them pancaked that guy on the next play. Now, John Michael will cheer on his brother while watching streams of his games online, providing constructive criticism after watching Jack’s film. After injuries set him back at Indiana State, Jack scored three touchdowns at Augustana this fall.
“You know you got somebody in your corner like that,” Jack said. “We always had each other’s back. Except for in pool basketball.”