2020 was a special year for the Michigan football team, but for all the wrong reasons. The Wolverines posted a miserable 2-4 record, failed to win a game on their home turf and missed their final two games due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program.
Following the season, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called a team meeting. The message was simple.
“If you’re going to hop on the train, don’t miss it,” Harbaugh said, according to junior offensive lineman Trevor Keegan.
The train left the station early in the offseason. Fresh off a five-year contract extension, Harbaugh replaced six of the Wolverines’ 10 assistant coaches during the winter. Many of the new hires were significantly younger than their predecessors, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Former defensive coordinator Don Brown, 66, was replaced by 34-year-old first-time coordinator Mike Macdonald. Defensive backs coach Mike Zordich, 57, was also unseated by 43-year-old Steve Clinkscale. The staff overhaul created a new energy around the program, and practices became noticeably gamelike.
“Everybody was ready to hop on the train, push and make the team better and make each other better,” junior tight end Erick All said Tuesday. “The camp was more competitive, it was a lot of competitive drills and different periods we had. When you’re competing, there’s less time to think about what you’re doing and just playing. I feel like that was (Harbaugh’s) point behind those periods throughout camp.”
That energy continued into fall camp, creating internal optimism and excitement ahead of the 2021 season. And with kickoff just days away, Michigan hopes to channel the impact of its supposed culture change on Saturday, especially on defense. But it takes more than talk to improve a unit that finished 12th in the Big Ten in total defense last season.
With a brand new defensive scheme in place, the Wolverines spent the offseason adjusting to new roles, responsibilities and verbiage. But the biggest defensive change came in the form of a coaching staff makeover. Beyond Macdonald and Clinkscale, Harbaugh added safeties coach Ron Bellamy and linebackers coach George Helow and retained defensive line coach Shaun Nua. At 43, Clinkscale is now the oldest of the program’s ten assistants.
“It’s different talking to (coaches) now,” senior defensive back Vincent Gray said. “It’s more of a back and forth conversation than just listening.”
The change started at the top. Harbaugh slimmed down noticeably this offseason and was even seen pushing a sled during the Big Ten Network’s fall camp tour. According to junior receiver Mike Sainristil, the Wolverines’ seventh-year head coach’s drive to right the ship is shining through.
“(Harbaugh) wants it as bad as anyone else here does, if not more,” Sainristil said Monday. “That’s exactly what we need coming from coach Harbaugh and it shows in the amount of buy-in everyone on the team has right now.”
It’s clear the new staff’s youth infusion has changed the program dynamic for the better. The added urgency of a dismal 2020 season accelerated that process, but it remains to be seen whether it translates to the field. For now, however, it’s noteworthy that Michigan’s staff has redefined things in a manner well-received by players.
“You feel the culture change around this building,” junior defensive tackle Chris Hinton said. “… We have a lot of trust in (Macdonald) and the new staff. Like I said, the new staff is young, they’re very young, so they relate to us a lot in football, in life and what we’re going through and things of that sort. Once you trust somebody, you’re going to give it your all.”