A year ago at this time, the Michigan football team was nearing the end of its first spring camp under coach Jim Harbaugh, only beginning to install Harbaugh’s system.
Saturday, after an open practice at Ford Field, Harbaugh said he thinks his team looks better than it did last spring.
“Whether that means you’re going to win more games doesn’t always happen,” Harbaugh said. “Just as a football team, we have a long road to go, a long way to go. It’s a process and we’re in it. It’s moving along.”
In Harbaugh’s eyes, the team has improved in a lot of areas: It has now spent a year in his system, gained momentum with last year’s 10-win season and finally brought in a top-ranked recruiting class.
“I think it’s a better athletic team. I think there’s some really good awareness, which a lot of times lets that athletic ability come out,” Harbaugh said. “I think we’re a more competitive team — all the things that I think are the most important things.”
The Wolverines practiced at the home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions on Saturday, with between 5,000 and 6,000 fans in attendance.
Michigan now has just two practices left this spring — a normal practice Tuesday and then Friday’s Spring Game at Michigan Stadium — and Saturday allowed the players to take a day away from Schembechler Hall in Ann Arbor.
“I think it’s great … sometimes spring practice can get monotonous, some would even say boring,” Harbaugh said. “There’s no game that comes at the end of the week, so something different, something to make it livelier, special. That’s what we get out of it. We have people that are in the stands, always felt that makes it better. Even the cameras, even the TV cameras, even if they didn’t have film in them.”
INJURY REPORT: Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Maurice Ways — who was, according to the coaches, making strides in the competition at wideout — suffered a fluke foot injury while hauling in a touchdown pass in practice this week. According to Harbaugh, he will need surgery and miss three to four months.
Meanwhile, redshirt sophomore wide receiver Freddy Canteen had surgery on his shoulder this week and is no longer listed on the team’s roster. Asked if he is still in the program, Harbaugh said, “I’ll get back to you on that.”
Wide receiver Jaron Dukes and defensive back Reon Dawson, who would have been in their fourth year with the program, have both retired for medical reasons.
Fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow, fifth-year senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson and redshirt freshman defensive end Shelton Johnson were all at practice Saturday, wearing helmets but no pads and participating in drills off to the side of the field. Glasgow hasn’t played since last Nov. 7 against Rutgers, while Chesson suffered his injury in the bowl game.
With Chesson, Dukes, Canteen and Ways injured, that leaves just fifth-year senior Amara Darboh, redshirt sophomore Drake Harris and sophomore Grant Perry as healthy wide receivers who have caught a pass in their careers. Early enrollee Ahmir Mitchell also saw significant reps at wideout.
“He’s doing a good job,” Harbaugh said. “Young guy. Young guys, it goes back to that, ‘How aware are they? How much do they know?’ And the more they know, the more it even brings out the athletic ability. He’s doing a good job. He’s doing just fine.”
IN DEPTH: Michigan’s first-team offensive line appears set. The starters now are, from left to right: sophomore Grant Newsome, fifth-year senior Erik Magnuson, junior Mason Cole, fifth-year senior Kyle Kalis and fifth-year senior Ben Braden. With four starters back and three at the same position as last year, the line appears as stable as it has been in years.
“The biggest thing for us was just that we didn’t have to learn a new offense,” Kalis said. “We came into it with a background already. In the Florida game (the Citrus Bowl), we had a great game, so we just want to build off that. We’re just continuing to develop the cohesiveness between the starting five.”
The second-string offensive line, from left to right, consists of redshirt sophomore Juwann Bushell-Beatty, redshirt freshman Jon Runyan, redshirt junior Patrick Kugler, fifth-year senior Ben Pliska and redshirt freshman Nolan Ulizio. Redshirt junior guard David Dawson had his arm in a sling Saturday.
Redshirt freshman Zach Gentry was a consistent target in the passing game, making progress in his transition from quarterback to tight end.
“You see so many times with young players that the more aware they become, the more they understand what their assignment is, when they grow and understand their technique in learning the position, then their athletic ability can come out so much more,” Harbaugh said. “That’s taking place with him. He’s doing a fine job.”
On defense, as they did last year, the Wolverines rotated bodies constantly, especially on the defensive line. Senior Taco Charlton, redshirt sophomore Lawrence Marshall and redshirt sophomore Chase Winovich split time at first-team end, with fifth-year seniors Chris Wormley and Matt Godin and redshirt sophomore Bryan Mone at tackle. Senior Jourdan Lewis was consistently the top cornerback, with fifth-year senior Jeremy Clark and senior Channing Stribling sharing reps opposite him.
Redshirt juniors Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas rotated at safety, and redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers was again a major contributor, rotating between safety and linebacker.
The linebacker position was less clear, with redshirt sophomore Noah Furbush and redshirt juniors Mike McCray and Ben Gedeon playing the most time.
Still, the defense’s biggest play came from sophomore safety Tyree Kinnel, who stepped in briefly with the first team, jumped a route and returned an interception for a touchdown.
HARBAUGH ON TWITTER: Harbaugh took a moment after practice to address his latest statement on Twitter. Tuesday night, Harbaugh took a jab at Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and the Buckeyes’ 2010 NCAA scandal, calling it a “tattoo fiasco.” Earlier Tuesday, Smith had made a comment about Harbaugh trying to make his program relevant.
“It felt like one got shot over our bow,” Harbaugh said. “It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction — waited a good eight, nine hours, and figured they might consider that it could be construed a certain way toward our program. Actually, some of the scribes and pundits were construing it that way. So when no explanation came, it was time to fire one over their bow.”