Michigan Wolverines football endured one of its worst seasons in program history in 2020, a unique season that included stringent COVID-19 protocols, a conference-only schedule and a virus outbreak that forced the team to miss its final three contests.
The Maize and Blue didn’t shy away from acknowledging that 2020 was, for lack of a better term, a disaster, but they are extremely determined to prove that it wasn’t proof that the program is in a downward spiral. One way to do that is to surprise fans and media, who picked Michigan to finish fourth in their division, in 2021. Rising up to that challenge is exactly what they plan on doing.
“That wasn’t Michigan, redshirt junior linebacker Josh Ross said at Big Ten Media Day Thursday. “2-4 — it’s not Michigan, that’s not Michigan at all. And that’s not how we’re about to play here or do here, because we know we’re better than that.
“We don’t play like that. We don’t play that bad. That’s not us. Tough year — COVID, all that. It was a tough year, but we learned from it, and that was the best thing that could’ve happened to us, and I’m glad it did. Keep stacking it day to day, and we’re going to be in a great place.”
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Outsiders have said that pressure is mounting on the program after the 2020 campaign and an offseason filled with changes that included head coach Jim Harbaugh taking a pay cut, then replacing six of his assistant coaches.
For the first time in Harbaugh’s tenure, which began in 2015, the Wolverines don’t have lofty expectations, and they don’t have a problem with it.
“I wouldn’t say anxious, just excited. You look on social media, you look anywhere, and we’re seen as — I mean, you can’t find a good thing about Michigan football on social media anywhere,” junior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said. “That’s great, and I love it.
“This is the first year in Michigan football, for me, where we’re seen as underdogs. Usually, we’re ranked top 15, top 10 sometimes. This year, we’re not even ranked, and I love it. I hope people continue to see us as the underdogs and, once we get rolling, they’ll see the speed and the athleticism of this defense, this team. We’re going to get rolling.”
“I love being seen as the underdog because, one, you have no expectations. Usually, Michigan football has the biggest expectations because we’ve got the richest history, most wins, all that stuff. Usually, we’re seen as contenders or whatever. Now we’re going into this year and people think we’re about to win six games. I eat that up. I can’t wait to put on a show, that’s all.”
From the first winter workouts and spring practices on, the Wolverines say the energy in the building and on the practice field has been different than a year ago. A big part of that is due to the six new assistant coaches, which include a new defensive coordinator in Mike Macdonald.
“I love all of those guys, and they’re such great coaches,” Ross said. “From the standpoint of spring ball, we learned a lot and we really grew as a unit and as a team. Going into the summer cycle, we worked out, grinded and are looking forward to get to camp to keep going as a team, because people are going to see what we can do.”
Harbaugh said Thursday that his team is going to beat Ohio State and win rivalry games, or “die trying.” His players who were in attendance were fired up hearing the words, and they share the same mentality as their head man.
“Yeah, that’s motivating,” Ross said with a grin. “We’re gonna get there, or we’re going to die trying. That’s our motive. We’re about to grind. We’re about to scrape and claw and scratch, and everything we need to do. I love it. For him to say that, I just love it. For us as players, let’s keep pushing forward and we’re going to be in a good spot.”
“That’s the mentality right there,” Hutchinson added. “I mean, I’ve invested so much of my energy — mental energy, physical energy — into giving this all that I’ve got. I’m back for my last ride here, and when I tell you I’ve given everything in spring ball coaching guys up, working out in summer conditioning, winter conditioning, rehabbing this ankle … I’ve done everything with this body, what I put into it to ensure that we have success this season.
“I’m willing to die for this, I swear. I want it more than anyone, I promise you that.”
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