The Michigan football team appointed its captains Thursday afternoon, one last offseason benchmark before next Saturday’s season-opener. And when the Wolverines take the field, the magic of last season will officially be just that — last season.
As it sets out to prove last year’s revival was not a fluke, Michigan is teeming with confidence.
“I feel like we’ve never been more ready to start a season than (we are now),” senior tight end and freshly-minted captain Erick All said. “People say it’s hard to build a culture and to do something more than once. But man, we continued it — the culture — here. We’ve gotten better as a team and gotten better with pretty much everything that we want to do.”
It’s a similar tone that the captains struck at the onset of last season. Last August, Aidan Hutchinson noted that the team’s buy-in was at an “all-time high.” Josh Ross, meanwhile, lauded the group’s efforts to overhaul the culture.
Those parallels are intentional. Michigan, off its best season in 15 years, is far from complacent. The pain of the College Football Playoff loss lurks amidst memories of triumph in The Game and a Big Ten Championship banner.
So on Thursday, when senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith stood in front of his teammates to deliver a speech, he knew what his message would be:
“We put in a lot of work, but just because the season is here, there’s more work to be put in here,” Smith recalled saying. “More opportunities to get better. I told them, ‘There’s no other group of people that I’d want to go to war with, that I’d want by my side. I love everybody in our room.’ ”
The Wolverines’ ability to maintain and advance the revamped culture relies on the captains — just as the core leadership group of last year, the leadership council, ushered the turnaround.
It’s a responsibility that they aren’t taking lightly.
“When this team faces adversity this season, how we react will define us and we’re well aware of that,” senior quarterback Cade McNamara said. “We really have to push that message, as the captains. Other leaders on the team have pushed that message as well. How you deal with adversity, it’s gonna be a defining moment for our team.”
In those defining moments, Michigan will begin to write its narrative.
The question becomes: What will it be?
Can the Wolverines secure a spot amongst the sport’s upper echelon while maintaining the edge that spurred last year’s revelation? Or will they fall back down to earth, re-adopting the label of ‘underperformers?’
It’s a lot to put on the captains, but it’s a burden they’re willing to carry.
“Our school name carries a weight that people want — the legacy that the school has, people envy that,” senior cornerback/receiver Mike Sainristil said. “That’s why we have to, every Saturday, when we play we just need to understand the chip that we have on our shoulder. Just don’t let people knock it down.”
For now, before games have begun, this duty manifests itself in a relentless drive to improve, spurred on by the leaders.
“No matter how perfect practice was, how many good plays, there’s always more to be done,” Smith said. “No matter how good your pad level is, you can always get lower. No matter how good your hand placement is, you can always get better. And I think that’s the approach we take to the season. No matter what we do, until we get a national championship, it ain’t gonna be enough.”