May 10, 2016
ANN ARBOR — Jim Harbaugh dubbed his debut season at Michigan “the year of hard work.”
That motto touched anyone who had anything to do with the program. Players, coaches, staffers, equipment managers. Everyone.
The process, per players, took a bit of time. After being almost blindsided by the amount of intense work Harbaugh had the team put in during his four-hour spring workouts, Michigan’s players found themselves entering a critical summer still trying to find their bearings.
In the end, of course, it worked. Michigan doubled its win total, secured an impressive bowl win and — per Harbaugh — pushed the train back into the right direction.
Now, entering the team’s second summer under Harbaugh, players say there’s a new level of understanding with what — exactly — it takes to succeed. It’s produced a new swagger, a new level of confidence and a higher expectation across the board.
“Everybody wants to work, that’s the difference,” Michigan corner Jourdan Lewis said this week. “We know if we work we can become something. We can become the best team in the nation.
“That started last year. We saw our progression from five wins to 10 wins and we saw how good we could be. We saw that work actually does work.”
Lewis is one of 19 final-year scholarship seniors who is down to his last shot in Ann Arbor.
The bulk of Michigan’s 2013 class, and the remainder of the 2012 class will be the backbone of Harbaugh’s roster this season. When both those groups were signed years ago by now former coach Brady Hoke, championships were the goal and they didn’t seem too far away.
The 2012 group ranked No. 6 nationally. The 2013 class came in at No. 4.
But so far, that crop has more losing seasons (one) than championships (zero). And while the 2015 season was a breath of fresh air for everyone involved with Michigan’s football program, this year’s senior class knows it’s time to take the next step.
The step plenty expected was just around the corner when they all signed.
“I think we have the guys (on both sides) this year to beat the teams like Michigan State and Ohio State, someone like Iowa or Wisconsin (if we can get to the Big Ten title game),” fifth-year senior defensive lineman Chris Wormley said recently. “I think we have the team this year that can take it all the way.”
For the next three months, it’ll be up the veterans to make sure things continue to push forward. Michigan’s been dubbed as a favorite to win its first Big Ten title since 2004 by a number of national prognosticators, and most college football analysts believe the Wolverines have the goods to at least push for a College Football Playoff spot this fall.
But none of that comes easy.
Michigan went through the most intense player-led workouts anyone on the roster had seen last summer, as the coaching staff cannot instruct the roster until fall camp opens in August.
That process will begin in full soon enough, and in some ways, it already has. Offseason weight training is underway and, this time, no one has to wonder if what they’re doing is enough.
Michigan’s veterans believe they’re tough enough now to police themselves this offseason. And the younger players who have been in the system for a year now know that not improving during the summer will equate to little or no playing time this fall.
“It’s upbeat, positive,” Lewis added. “Everybody wants to go in there and work and be the best they can be.”
Harbaugh hasn’t announced an official slogan for his second season in Ann Arbor. Maybe he won’t. Maybe it’ll just be another “year of hard work.”
But in the eyes of the seniors, this process toward getting over the hump begins this summer.
“Last year we made a great step, getting to a good bowl game,” senior defensive end Taco Charlton said. “But we had bigger goals we wanted to achieve. The Big Ten championship is one of them. This year, we want to go all the way, go undefeated, win games, put Michigan back to where it belongs.
“Back on the national stage.”