As the final week of preparation neared its conclusion, Michigan football players and coaches expressed their eagerness for all the pregame discussion to stop and for an actual football game to be played.
The time had come, they said, to put all the offseason storylines behind them and showcase what they hope will be a more committed, more complete and more competitive team this season.
BURNING QUESTIONS:What will Michigan’s record be and will U-M beat Ohio State?
That provides a great opportunity to empty the notebook ahead of Saturday’s opener against Western Michigan and officially put a bow on fall camp:
‘Hop on the train, don’t miss it’
Players and coaches spoke ad nauseum this week about a culture change within Schembechler Hall. The team had grown much closer since the end of last season, they said, and that cohesiveness broadened their confidence for the upcoming season.
“Honestly I think the first team meeting we had after the (2020) season,” Keegan said. “Coach Harbaugh said ‘If you’re going to hop on the train, don’t miss it. Just stay on it and keep going.’ And the first spring practice, ever since then it’s just been rolling.
“Just players, the coaches, the team camaraderie. We’ve got dudes talking to dudes that wouldn’t even talk to each other two years ago. And now the spirit is up, the hopes are high and we’re determined this year.”
BOLD PREDICTIONS:Cade McNamara won’t be only QB taking snaps
“First meeting he had with us in January,” Hinton said. “Came in, we had a defensive meeting, laid down what he envisioned. Then he said, ‘What do you all envision this defense to be? Because it’s your defense at the end of the day.’ And the guys really soaked that up and really appreciated that he was giving us the keys to the defense.”
Coming back from coronavirus
Hinton missed approximately half of spring practice after testing positive for COVID-19 and fell behind learning Macdonald’s defense. He played catch up for the remainder of spring ball but felt comfortable in the new system by the time practice concluded.
“When I first got (COVID-19) — I aint’t gonna lie — I was hurting a little bit,” Hinton said. “But once I got back, I never really felt anything with my breathing or anything. Thank god. I’m fine, healthy, 100%.”
Looking at the offensive line
— Michigan’s desire to become a run-first offense this season hinges on whether its offensive line will generate push on a regular basis. The five starters figure to be Ryan Hayes (LT), Keegan (LG), Andrew Vastardis (C), Zak Zinter (RG) and Andrew Steuber (RT).
Vastardis, a graduate student who was voted a team captain, serves as the group’s emotional leader and elder statesman.
“He’s just the ultimate leader,” Keegan said. “We rally around V. He’s been here for like 10 years (Vastardis began his Michigan career in 2016), so he knows every call, he knows every play in and out. He really grasps it and leads us as a group and as a team.
“We call him Gramps. He’s got all the energy in the world. He loves it. He loves the game more than anybody and he shows it. He works his tail off and he’s really a true leader on this team.”
Zinter, whom offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has mentioned among the most talented offensive players, is more of the on-field role model.
“He’s a very athletic human being,” Keegan said about Zinter. “He’s very strong. He’s a confident player. Everything he does, he handles his business well ever since he came in. I think he’s starting to get in that leading role where he leads by example. He does everything the right way, and the younger kids are starting to see that. The younger kids on the line look up to him.”
Tight end Erick All provided further proof of Gattis’ intention to run the football when he said more of his time in camp was dedicated to in-line blocking than in prior years. He’s studied tape of former Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson, now with the Detroit Lions, to absorb the mentality of an aggressive, no-nonsense blocker when called upon.
“Getting hands inside and driving people,” All said. “Just being that type of blocker down the field, pancaking people.”
Life on the links
Outside of practice, All and several of his teammates spent time on the golf course learning from quarterback Cade McNamara, whose fiery competitiveness translated from one sport to the other.
“When we go golfing, he takes the same amount of energy,” All said. “I just learned this year to play. This guy (Cade McNamara) is out here — I’m thinking it’s like a calm sport — and he’ll mess up a hole and throw his club at the cart. He puts everything out there no matter what he does, and that’s the type of people I try to be around.”
Keep an eye out for Kris Jenkins
Michigan is expected to play more three-man defensive fronts in Macdonald’s new system. And even though Hinton, Mazi Smith and Donovan Jeter are expected to fill the starting spots, defensive line coach Shaun Nua thinks sophomore Kris Jenkins is poised for a larger role.
“Look out for Kris Jenkins,” Nua said. “I think Kris Jenkins has a great opportunity to reveal his talent. And we’re all excited to see how that goes. Kris Jenkins is one of the young guys, young players that is doing a good job coming along.”
A different kind of diet
In order to prepare for their new roles in Macdonald’s defense, several of the defensive linemen had to reshape their bodies during the offseason. Smith told reporters he gained approximately 20 pounds and feels much more comfortable in his new role.
“My diet had been very, very strict,” Smith said. “It ain’t like I wasn’t eating or nothing, but to get down to 295-300 (pounds in past years), I’m naturally a guy that would be 315 or 320. I just kind of let loose a little bit. I’m 318. It’s the best shape I’ve ever been in.”