When the Michigan football team returned to practice after its bye week on Sunday, coach Jim Harbaugh found himself taken aback.
“They didn’t practice Friday, they didn’t practice Saturday,” Harbaugh said Monday. “They came back Sunday, and we had as good a practice — in terms of guys moving around, knowing what they were doing, locked in, focused — as I’ve ever seen a team come back after a two-and-a-half day break. That was really exciting.”
Since the Wolverines play games on Saturday, they usually get Sunday off. When circumstances have forced them to practice on Sundays in years past, the response hasn’t always been positive.
But that wasn’t the case this past weekend. No. 6 Michigan has jumped into the Big Ten title conversation amid its undefeated start, and that has fostered an enthusiasm the program lacked during last season’s dismal 2-4 campaign.
“In the past, the energy would not be up on those days,” fifth-year tight end Joel Honigford said Tuesday. “Guys would be a little frustrated about coming in on Sundays, but I didn’t see anyone upset about it. We got out on the practice field, dudes were jumping around, excited to be out there. Didn’t feel like anyone was sluggish or slow. Guys were ready to get after it, get ready for Northwestern.”
Added fifth-year offensive lineman Andrew Stueber: “I’ve been here for a lot of years. I know how tough it can be after a couple days off to come back. You’re kind of sluggish getting back into it. I was really impressed with the overall energy of practice.”
The Wolverines’ practice energy begins with the linemen, according to Stueber. Michigan always begins practice with a physical drill, whether that’s one-on-ones or some other variation of contact in the trenches.
Setting the tone for practice is always important, but coming off a bye week, Stueber and the other veterans made a conscious effort to go the extra mile.
“Being able to start practice like that, having the ability to set the precedent for practice, is something we take very seriously,” Stueber said. “It was an emphasis for us to come out and make sure we had some energy. Overall, I was really excited to see how everyone was so into it, coming back and excited to play again after some time off.
“… It was kind of like, ‘OK, this bye week is coming to an end. Tomorrow starts our Northwestern prep.’ ”
On Sunday, the linemen weren’t just setting the standard for practice. With the bye week in the rearview mirror, they were laying the foundation for the entire second half of Michigan’s season — a stretch that includes three top-10 opponents.
The Wolverines’ 6-0 start has proven last season could have been an anomaly rather than the program’s new normal, but the true tests of this year still lie ahead. Just when it appeared the program had reached rock bottom under Harbaugh, Michigan weathered an offseason of criticism and rebounded in a big way to begin the season.
But the work is far from done, and the bye week gave the Wolverines a chance to realize exactly that.
“It’s nice being ranked No. 6 in the country,” Honigford said. “For us, that’s not where we want to be. We don’t want to stay there. But the only way we get to where we’d eventually like to be is by taking it one week at a time.”