Michigan Wolverines football began spring practices in late February, had a pause in the middle of the 15 practices and concluded with a spring game (closed to the media and public) April 10. Now, the Maize and Blue are going through strength and conditioning sessions as the semester comes to a close.
“Been hitting the weight room, continue to watch tape, have meetings,” head coach Jim Harbaugh said on the ‘In The Trenches’ podcast with host Jon Jansen. “Have been a lot of walk-throughs as well. Been two and a half weeks since spring ball ended, and we’ve continued to ascend. The team is really taking the things that they’ve learned and trying to put on the strength and conditioning as well.”
There was also an increased sense of energy around the building this spring, many players noted during media sessions, and Harbaugh said he agrees that the enthusiasm is at a good place.
“Probably the most noticeable thing was just what we missed in not having a spring last year, not having that time together for guys to work on their craft, improve their game, have the full winter cycle, have the full spring cycle,” Harbaugh added. “The energy has been really good, coaching wise, player wise. It’s been noticeable to me and everybody.”
A lot of the energy is coming from the six new coaches who Harbaugh brought in this offseason in defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Maurice Linguist, linebackers coach George Helow, safeties coach Ron Bellamy, running backs coach Mike Hart and quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss. Harbaugh has been impressed with what the new crop of staff members have brought so far.
“All of our new coaches — Ron Bellamy and Mike Hart and Mike [Macdonald] and George Helow, Matt Weiss, Mo Linguist — the one thing I would say is that players listen to guys who know what they’re talking about, and it was very apparent that our players were listening to our coaches, our new coaches,” he said. “The coaches, very engaged. Gained their trust.
“The coaches did a great job — and the players were trusting what they were telling them, they were seeing themselves take those coaching points from the meeting room to the field and have success. That put an exclamation point on it for them, that these are coaches that know what they’re doing and know what they’re saying, and players are developing under their guidance.”
Four of the new faces work on the defensive side of the ball, and there’s an entirely new defensive scheme that is being implemented. While it’s a process to install the playbook and get the players to master it, Harbaugh likes the progress he has seen, and he has high expectations for the unit.
“Really good. We’ve got good players on defense, and you see it jelling, you see it coming together where players are doing some different roles based on the scheme, different positions,” Harbaugh said.
“Defensive ends are now stand-up outside ‘backers. It fits them. I think they’re excited about it and learning those news positions.
“We’ve got a defense that is sound and good. They’re fitting the players to the scheme and how their talents are going to be used, and it’s some good players, so I think it’s a process and it’s a daily thing, but I see us being pretty darn good on defense.”
Harbaugh and Co. received huge news following last season that junior edge defender Aidan Hutchinson, a returning captain, would be returning for at least one more season. Hutchinson missed the bulk of last season with a leg injury and is in the midst of getting himself back to 100 percent.
“Unbelievable. Not just the decision to come back, but the decision to come back, all in,” Harbaugh raved. “He did what he could in spring; he wasn’t in any scrimmages, but he was doing individual, he was out there every day, learning the new scheme. And right now, physically [he’s the] in the top three across all the key performance indicators. He has come back, training at the highest level, all in, wants to be great, wants to be great for Michigan.
“He gathered the strength coaches up last week, and he said, ‘I have one request. And that request is that every time I come in this weight room, this gym, that you wear me out, you make me get my money’s worth every time I come in here. There may be a day or two that I don’t feel like it, but make sure that I get my money’s worth every time I come in here.’
“So it’s not just coming back, he’s come back full force, and it’s been a tremendous example of leading by example in what he’s doing. So it’s really exciting.”
And he has help at his position group, with some other players emerging after the departure of Kwity Paye, a projected first-round draft pick, this offseason.
“[Redshirt sophomore] Taylor Upshaw, [redshirt freshman] Mike Morris, [redshirt freshman] David Ojabo, [redshirt freshman] Gabe Newburg, [freshman] Jaylen Harrell and [freshman] Braiden McGregor — those are all players that were defensive ends that are now stand-up outside linebackers. It fits their ability, their talent and I saw them make huge strides.
“You talked about the energy, you talked about the fun of those guys, all young players, all ascending players that are in a new role — all really had good springs. That’s probably the best example.”
Michigan returns all of its interior defensive linemen, with the exception of Carlo Kemp, so there is some experience in place, but having it emerge, especially in a 3-4 defense, is going to be crucial
“Guys like [redshirt freshman] Mazi Smith — you talk about just ascending — [are] really doing well. Mazi, [sophomore] Chris Hinton, [redshirt sophomore] Julius Welschof, [freshman] Kris Jenkins, [redshirt junior] Jess Speight, [redshirt sophomore] Joey George had a heck of a good spring and [redshirt junior] Donovan Jeter — veteran guy, started at defensive tackle — so that interior defensive line is really, really coming along.
“I feel like we are getting stouter in the middle, as well.”
The rest of the front seven will also have to take a step forward, with Cam McGrone having left early for the NFL. Redshirt junior linebacker Josh Ross is the leader of the bunch, and redshirt sophomore Michael Barrett had to move from viper to inside linebacker this offseason. A group of young players are behind them, pushing for playing time.
“Josh Ross also is that kind of class, I would put him up there with Aidan Hutchinson,” Harbaugh noted. “Mike Barrett had an extremely good spring.
“Some real good young linebackers came to the fore[front] — [freshman] Nikhai Hill-Green and [freshman] Kalel Mullings — and then mid-year freshman Junior Colson stood out.”
In the secondary, all four starters from last season — redshirt sophomore cornerbacks Gemon Green and Vincent Gray, fifth-year senior safety Brad Hawkins and sophomore safety Dax Hill — are all back, so there is continuity. But one young corner in particular might be playing his way into the starting lineup.
“Gemon Green at corner, [redshirt freshman] DJ Turner and Vince Gray battling for the other corner spot. DJ really had a great spring, took that coaching from Mo Linguist and Mike Macdonald, and he looks like he’s put himself in a position to be a real factor, as I said, battling for that starting job.
“Dax Hill and Brad Hawkins — other guys that lead by example, had extremely good springs. And then young safeties that have really asserted themselves — [freshman] RJ Moten, [freshman] Jordan Morant, [redshirt freshman] Caden Kolesar and [freshman] Makari Paige are all ascending as well on that defensive side.”
All in all, Harbaugh has been pleased while still knowing the defensive side of the ball has a lot to improve upon — and prove – in year one under Macdonald.
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