ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan’s 19-man NFL Draft/UDFA class will get mentioned at every turn during the 2017 season. How will the Wolverines compensate without All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis, back-to-back Big Ten tight end of the year — and Mackey winner — Jake Butt and do-all Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers?
Fair enough. They’re valid questions. But they were names. Great names, sure, but names cycling through three to five years of college. Turnover, player-wise, is a fact of life in college athletics.
However, Jim Harbaugh is still coaching the Wolverines, entering his third year, and he still has a pro-level supporting cast. The ideals and principles remain the same, there will just be a few new — OK, more than a few — names to pay attention to this fall, starting Sept. 2 when No. 11-ranked Michigan plays the No. 17-ranked Florida Gators at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Focused, all business and prepared for an important season-opener — nothing, really, has changed in Ann Arbor.
Harbaugh is in control. His players are attentive.
It’s been a smooth two-way street throughout camp.
— JJ Sports Video (@jjsportsvideo15) August 28, 2017
“Well, I think it always starts — I feel like, anyway — that it starts as a coach, and it’s your responsibility for everything,” Harbaugh said at Schembechler Hall during his first press conference of the season.
“The leadership that you provide is, for most, everything. And then as you go, I mean, you start deputizing captains and leaders, and delegating a good share of that leadership — not all of it. Because, you know, your duties and your responsibilities dictate, as a coach, that you are responsible and you have to fulfill your duties. But you are deputizing the players to take the ownership and take a good share of the leadership themselves.”
With a pair of carefully selected senior captains, left tackle Mason Cole and fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray, Harbaugh has ideal on-field leadership for both sides of the ball. With a group of highly touted sophomores and true freshmen, not to mention a heady quarterback in redshirt junior Wilton Speight, Harbaugh has enough stock to compete for a Big Ten East Division title.
Evidently, the Wolverines realize all of that, too. Sure, there have been hiccups and growing pains, but they’ve — across the board — bought into the same philosophies that have led to a 20-6 record since Harbaugh took over Dec. 30, 2014.
“Appreciative. That’s what a good team does,” Harbaugh said when asked about his thoughts on players carrying out orders. “They come together, and they get all together — all on the same page. And it starts with coaches, players, by position, by units and by the entire team.”
In 2016, Michigan was loaded with seniors… everywhere.
This year, the Wolverines are younger… much younger. We’re talking true freshmen at key positions and sophomores being viewed by some as “veterans” — an idea sophomore receiver Kekoa Crawford jokingly dismissed but also understood.
Meanwhile, Khalid Hill, a fifth-year senior fullback, has immediately recognized the changing dynamic. He’s been around — a real veteran with 31 games served.
“We all were mature, we all knew what we had to do — we had one mindset, you know what I’m saying?” Hill said of the 2016 upperclassmen. “Now that we have a lot of young guys on the team, it’s kind of like, ‘OK’ — you’ve got to know to be a leader…”
A chat with fellow fifth-year senior helped, too. Talk is talk, action is action — and Hill wanted to make sure everyone was on board and understood roles. Leadership comes in several forms. But as long it gets established, everything else will follow.
“I was talking to Mike (McCray), and being a leader is kind of different,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to do a lot more, you know what I’m saying? You’ve got to be able to be vocal, talk — because a lot of people (aren’t always vocal)… like myself, I’m kind of a soft-spoken leader. I lead by example. I don’t really lead by ‘Rah! Rah! Rah!’ and all that stuff.”
Young team? Yeah. But it has sturdy experience at the top end, anchored by Hill, fifth-year seniors Henry Poggi, a fullback, and Patrick Kugler, a center — not to mention fifth-year senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, who’s been tabbed as one of the best D-liners in the nation.
And then there’s sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary, who, since spring, has all but said he wanted to be a key leader for the Wolverines. Tyree Kinnel, a junior safety… the list doesn’t end there, but you get the point.
But they’re prepared, and many of them have been deputized. They know their roles and understand expectations. But most of all, they’ve continued to follow Harbaugh’s direction.
Names have changed. But the system hasn’t gone anywhere — and it couldn’t have been more clear than during the past three weeks.
“It’s kind of been a good journey for us; it’s kind of teaching us a lot as players as well,’ Hill said. “And it’s given us more responsibility as players as well — so it’s all good.”