There’s been a lot of reflecting this week inside Schembechler Hall, and that’s par for the course at this time of year. The grueling marathon is winding to an end, with the regular season down to just two games — both of which merit reflections.
First up is Senior Day, Saturday against Illinois. It marks one last chance for a number of Wolverines to run out of the tunnel, touch the banner and play in front of a legion of over 100,000 diehards.
This group of seniors has proven instrumental in orchestrating the program’s stunning turnaround, which brings us to the second game worthy of a reflection — The Game. A week from Saturday, the No. 3 Michigan football team and No. 2 Ohio State will take the field in Columbus in a potential undefeated showdown with massive postseason implications.
Let’s reflect a little bit on the magnitude of that sentence.
Wednesday, co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Sherrone Moore stood at the podium and reopened wounds to reminisce on the year that the program cratered. Because in Ann Arbor, everything circles back to 2020.
“Everybody realized, we never wanted to be in that situation again,” Moore said, speaking bluntly. “We did everything in our power to make sure that we weren’t in that situation. … That was the turning point to everything, to say, ‘Hey, we’re tired of it. We’re never gonna let this happen again to this program.”
Yet amid that rhetoric, no one could have reasonably foreseen such a dramatic transformation. The Wolverines have won 22 of their last 24 games, broken a futile streak against Ohio State, captured a Big Ten Championship and soared into the College Football Playoff for the first time. This season, they have not only recaptured last year’s magic but built upon it, looking even more dominant.
Simply put, in the context of 2020 — in the context of the 21st century Michigan football program — it’s remarkable.
So, Moore wants to make sure that the credit is given to the right subset of people.
“The players, they’ve really set the tone for everything,” Moore said. “(They have) let us guide them, let us lead them, but the players have done the work necessary on and off the field to be where we are at this position right now.”
Oftentimes, discourse of program turnarounds and revelations seems hollow. But the Wolverines’ upperclassmen have the requisite ethos to speak on such matters.
Junior defensive lineman Kris Jenkins played just one game as a freshman in 2020. But he lived through the nightmare. That following January, from the very first day of early workouts, Jenkins maintains that he saw a different look in everyone’s eyes.
“We were gonna do whatever we could for each other, we were gonna do whatever we could for this team… to our fullest ability,” Jenkins said.
Fifth-year tight end Joel Honigford — a freshman during the Wolverines’ disheartening 2017 season and a contributor in 2020 — noticed a shared sentiment that permeated the locker room.
“Two (wins) and four (losses) is not okay, losing in general is not okay,” Honigford said. “And we all kind of understood that. … Obviously, we saw success and we kind of figured out that this is what it takes to get to where we were last year, but now we have another step to take and even buying in more this year and trusting each other and our coaches.”
Honigford is one of the team’s eldest spokesmen. When asked what is most different now from just a few years ago, he hardly hesitates.
“Everybody loves everybody,” Honigford said, describing the program like a tight-knit family. “Everybody’s playing for everybody else.”
That mojo manifests itself in multiple ways. It’s senior Karsen Barnhardt — who usurped senior Trente Jones as the starting right tackle — quickly refuting the idea that his relationship with Jones might be vengeful. It’s Honigford embracing his transition from lineman to tight end, as content to block as he is to catch the ball because he trusts his teammates and coaches to put him in a position most conducive to helping the team win.
All of this selflessness finds its origins in the aftermath of 2020.
“That wasn’t the type of team we wanted to be known as, wasn’t the type of team we wanted to be identified as,” Jenkins said, remembering the team’s mindset. “From that point, we just ignited a new culture, really playing for each other, not for ourselves. That’s something that we’ve continued to do, that we continue to stress.”
Added senior cornerback D.J. Turner: “The leaders on the team just really took charge. We just fell into place behind them, and it all just gelled together.”
And it has all led to this point — one last home game for a critical group of seniors, followed by a rendezvous for a trip to the Big Ten Championship with Ohio State.
It’s still pretty hard to believe. But emerging from the rubble of 2020, Michigan’s upperclassmen put the transformation into motion.
“I can’t say enough good things,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “They’re great guys. They don’t have adult problems. They’re just really good, focused, genuine, down-to-earth guys. … They’ve been so good.”
Good, on and off the field. And as the end draws near, that’s worth reflecting on.