Daxton Hill declared for the NFL Draft on Thursday. Madeline Hinkley/Daily. Buy this photo.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Playing football during a prolonged pandemic, absences were always a possibility. 

For most of the season, Michigan has been able to avoid COVID-related issues, thanks to a high vaccination rate and relatively low community spread within Ann Arbor. But with the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant surging during the holiday travel season, rumors began to swirl on Tuesday that junior defensive back Daxton Hill had not travelled with the team to the Orange Bowl. 

Thursday, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh confirmed that Hill did not travel, but did little to clear up whether he would play, saying that Hill is “questionable” for Friday’s game. 

“He’s working through something right now,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll know more today whether he’ll be able to play. … He might be — he could be here today. He may not. But not currently in Florida, no.”

If Hill does not make the trip, it would certainly be a major loss for a Wolverine defense that’s relied on his freakish athleticism all season. Since moving to nickel corner after playing deep safety last season, Hill has been much more in his element closer to the line of scrimmage, be it through shutting down slot receivers and tight ends in coverage or hurrying the quarterback with a surprise blitz. 

Hill’s absence would also mean more playing time for freshman safety Rod Moore, who recorded a career-high nine tackles against Ohio State and has been praised by coaches and teammates for his uncharacteristically high football IQ for a freshman. 

“I feel great about the depth of the safeties,” fifth-year safety Brad Hawkins said. “Rod Moore is a tremendous player. He’s a leader as a young guy. He listens. He wants to learn. He wants to get better every single day.”

That work ethic will be put to the test on Friday if Hill can’t suit up. 

Harbaugh’s retrospective on the season, his contract

At the start of the season, the College Football Playoff did not seem to be in the cards for Michigan. It seemed simple — the Wolverines were coming off a 2-4 season and Harbaugh saw his salary unceremoniously cut in half entering 2021. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Michigan has been one of the biggest surprises in college football this season. 

For Harbaugh — who recently donated his incentive-prompted bonuses to athletic department staffers who saw their pay cut during the pandemic — the preseason pay cut didn’t matter one bit.

“No big deal,” Harbaugh said. “Attacking each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind, as always. It didn’t really mean anything to me. It’s just money.”

His program has also found something this season that it perhaps lacked in previous years: fun. It’s easy to see it when players are partying at the beach leading up to the Orange Bowl, but it’s also been a point of emphasis for the rest of the year — practices, according to players, are more fun this year than they’ve ever been. 

The results speak for themselves.  

“There’s a great joy around the team, the locker room, practices,” Harbaugh said. “It would almost be like, if you weren’t happy about that, then there would be something else we’ve got to look into. Why? Why wouldn’t you be happy?”

Harbaugh and Smart’s relationship

Harbaugh and Georgia coach Kirby Smart entered this season in very different situations.

While Harbaugh entered the season on a bona fide “prove it” deal, Smart led a program clearly on the rise, having won the SEC East in three of his first five seasons and falling in the National Championship Game in 2017. 

At their cores, though, the two coaches have a lot in common. Both are quirky, perfectionist football gurus with a reputation for over-the-top competitiveness. Though Friday will be their first time on opposite sidelines, they’ve found themselves in a number of fierce recruiting battles over the years. In 2016, they even found themselves in an internet spat, with Smart accusing Harbaugh’s satellite camps as being unfair for recruiting and Harbaugh firing back that he was “barking up the wrong tree.”

Still, like the coaches of any two high-level programs, they share a mutual respect.

“I have seen (Harbaugh) throughout the years compete and go to camps and work out with kids,” Smart said. “I remember at Alabama when he played a little football down in Prattville, took his shirt off. I could never do that — he can get away with it a lot better than I can, so I have to keep my shirt on. But he has a lot of energy, and I know the recruiting events I’ve been to and the camps, he certainly coaches with a passion and style that I certainly admire and respect.”

Added Harbaugh: “It was an old-fashioned shirts and skins game. But probably just a lot of similarities. Both football coaches, doing what we love. I can tell listening to (Smart) talk about his team, that’s the way I feel. You’re in it for these relationships and these long and lasting friendships and trying to get good at football.”

There’s certainly love, but make no mistake — you won’t see much of that on Friday.