Four months ago, almost to the day, the Michigan football team assembled in Ann Arbor for the start of fall practice on Aug. 7. Jim Harbaugh had been head coach for just over seven months, including one spring camp, but still, an unknown lay ahead.
The Wolverines had no idea what to expect out of Harbaugh’s first fall camp. They didn’t know what time practices would be. They didn’t know what they would entail. In his media day press conference Aug. 6, Harbaugh proclaimed that his team was going into a “submarine” and using a “bunker mentality.” No one was quite sure what that meant.
That camp laid the foundation for a year of rebirth, one in which the Wolverines regained their dignity, Harbaugh said Monday. Thursday, as Michigan begins its preparation for the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl, it will end the season the same way it started it: with a long month of practice and preparation, with unclear expectations.
“Not until Coach Harbaugh lays it all out and really sends us a schedule on everything, what it’s going to be like and stuff,” said senior linebacker Joe Bolden on Monday. “So no, I have no idea right now, standing here talking to you.”
Not under Harbaugh, at least. The Wolverines last played in a bowl game in 2013, when they lost to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, 31-14. This year, they again have the opportunity to spend the last month of the season refining technique and correcting weaknesses in preparation for next season.
“I think it’s really a big deal for us to get those extra 15 practices, which goes overlooked sometimes,” said junior tight end Jake Butt on Monday. “Just getting those young players those 15 practices, that’s another spring ball. That can go a long way for player development.”
Another shakeup is the departure of defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, who took the head coaching job at Maryland. Chris Partridge, previously the director of player personnel, will take over Durkin’s role as linebackers coach for the bowl game, and defensive line coach Greg Mattison will coordinate the defense. Mattison previously led the unit from 2011 to 2014 under Brady Hoke.
“(For) some of us, (Mattison is) what we know better, in a way,” Bolden said. “I’ve played three of my four years under him. I love how he coached and how he coaches. I came in and my first game was under him, and I’m going out and my last game’s going to be played with him calling the defense, too. So, it’s pretty exciting from my standpoint.”
Other than the role changes, Michigan has a fair level of continuity, perhaps giving it the opportunity to heal for the bowl game. Most notably, fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock is recovering from a shoulder injury he suffered in the regular-season finale against Ohio State.
On both sides of the ball, the Wolverines will go back to the fundamentals. They ended the regular season with a tough 42-13 loss to the Buckeyes at Michigan Stadium, and while they will still finish 0-2 against their rivals, they have a chance to end the year on a different note.
On Sunday in a teleconference and again Monday at the annual team banquet, Harbaugh used the analogy of a running locomotive to describe his team’s progress, saying he will try to keep it going heading into the offseason.
His opponent, Florida, has the same amount of time to prepare, so a tough test lies ahead.
“I wouldn’t say either team is at an advantage or disadvantage,” Bolden said. “We’ve all got the same amount of time, and how you use that time will determine how you play and the outcome of the game.”
The players aren’t yet aware of how exactly Harbaugh will go about that preparation. Redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson said that as fall camp went along, the team got into a rhythm of knowing roughly what time practice would be and about how long it would last.
But now, that process starts all over to conclude the season.
“I’m not too sure what to expect,” Chesson said. “We’ll go back to our roots in terms of trying to get the fundamentals and everything shaken out.
“It’s an unknown. We’ve never done it before.”