ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP)Standout Michigan center Olu Oluwatimi had a season that was even better than his dreams.

The graduate transfer from Virginia wasn’t surprised the Wolverines had a successful season, which earned them a matchup with TCU in the Fiesta Bowl in a New Year’s Eve semifinal for a berth in the national title game. It also didn’t stun the AP All-American to win the Rimington Award as the college football’s best center.

Oluwatimi was thrilled – and surprised – to become the first player in school history to win the Outland Trophy that recognizes the top interior lineman on either side of the ball.

He would, though, like to forget a five-day stretch in November.

Oluwatimi lost three friends and former teammates at Virginia in a shooting attack that shocked the Cavaliers and prompted the cancellation of the last two games of their season.

”They will always be my brothers even though they’re no longer with us,” Oluwatimi said quietly in a recent interview with The Associated Press. ”I know they’re definitely looking down on me, and hopefully they’re proud.”

Four days after the tragedy, his father had surgery to remove a brain tumor a year after having major heart surgery. ”It was a tough week,” Oluwatimi said.

Oluwatimi endured the emotional trauma without missing a beat, drawing praise for his mental toughness from Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh.

”I think back to being that age and there’s no way I could have handled that,” Harbaugh said. ”But he has the strength of 10 men and thank God that that was a successful surgery.”

Michigan, until this month, had not dipped into the tranfer portal much and Harbaugh is thankful he did a year ago.

The 23-year-old Oluwatimi, who is from Maryland, was on Air Force’s team as a freshman before transferring to Virginia, where he started in 35 games over three seasons and was a finalist for the Rimington Award in 2021.

He wanted to transfer again to take advanatage of an extra season of eligibility the NCAA gave athletes enrolled during the 2019-20 school year because of the pandemic. The 6-foot-3, 307-pound Oluwatimi wanted to join a program that would put him in a better position to pursue his goal of playing in the NFL.

”I knew I wanted to be here before I hit the portal,” Oluwatimi said in an office on the second floor of Schembechler Hall. ”It was here or Clemson, but it wasn’t close. Michigan is so prestigous, the program is ascending and needed a center.

”When I watched them play and saw the physicality of the offensive line, as a lineman, it was the perfect culture to try to be a part of for my last year.”

Over the last two seasons, Harbaugh has had award-winning offensive lines that allowed him to implement his preferred run-heavy offense. The Joe Moore Award recognizes college football’s best offensive line and Oluwatimi helped the Wolverines win it for a second straight year – a first for any program.

”He’s very powerful,” said Michigan tight end Joel Honigford, who played on the offensive line before switching positions two years ago. ”If he gets his hands on you, it’s pretty much over for you that play. He’s a really good communicator and he allows the guys around him to play thought-free and just play football.”

As rough as November was for Oluwatimi, there was a lot to like this month with a Big Ten championship along with the various awards.

”When I committed to Michigan, the only thing I didn’t expect was to win the Outland,” he said. ”I don’t say that in a cocky way, but I was a finalist for the Rimington last year and I expected us to be 13-0 with a chance to compete for the national championship.”

Oluwatimi and his teammates, though, are far from satisfied.

”If we stop here, we’re not any beter than last year’s team that lost in the playoff,” he said. ”It all starts with TCU, which has a Hesiman finalist at quarterback and an unorthodox defense with a three-man front that can present problems. We’re really good, too, and we’re trying to be immortal as one of the best teams in college football history.”

Follow Larry Lage at https://twitter.com/larrylage

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