The children were waiting for autographs, but they didn’t know how to ask.
Derrick Green passed. Then a slew of quarterbacks: Russell Bellomy, Wilton Speight, Shane Morris. Then a group of wide receivers, all walking off the Michigan Stadium turf into the tunnel to the locker room.
The children yelled numbers, not names. They didn’t know them, not until they saw the back of the jersey and blurted out last names only, when it was too late. Then Desmond Howard jogged by, and they screamed. They knew him.
But this isn’t Howard’s team anymore, nor is it Charles Woodson’s, who stood on the other sideline. This is Michigan, a program that hasn’t won a Big Ten Championship in a decade.
This is Michigan, less and less of a household name every year.
Saturday, several thousand fans filed into Michigan Stadium, not to listen to stale pop music over the speakers — though there was plenty — but for answers.
After the disappointment of the 2013-14 campaign, the Spring Game was an opportunity for Michigan to showcase the improvement it has made since then, and the freshman talent who might star this year. It was a chance to quell the fears that last year’s 7-6 record and restaurant-sponsored bowl game was part of a trend, not an aberration.
Instead, as Michigan coach Brady Hoke said afterward, the scrimmage was “generic.” The Wolverines didn’t unveil many wrinkles of coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s new offense. The defense dominated, and not because of some newfound tenacity in the linebackers and corners.
It took more than an hour for stretching, punting drills and positional warm-ups to finally transition into an actual scrimmage. And then? On the first play, fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner threw an interception. On the next, a run was stuffed for no gain. And on the last snap of the opening drive, Gardner was knocked to the ground while throwing, yellow no-contact jersey be damned.
Answers? We got a few. Freshman Mason Cole did, in fact, start at left tackle, and he held his own against Frank Clark. Freddy Canteen, the freshman receiver who likes to brag about his athleticism, made a streaking 40-yard reception. Devin Funchess has shed the apocryphal label of tight end, and the junior is still the Wolverines’ biggest downfield threat as a wideout.
But Gardner made ill-advised throws, like the ones that plagued him last year. The offensive line gave in to the pressure so quickly that the quarterbacks shrugged their shoulders, helpless to the assault. Michigan couldn’t find success running between the tackles. Canteen’s catch, the offensive highlight of the day, was equal parts good offensive execution and defensive breakdown.
Afterward, Hoke sat in the press room and explained it all away.
“I thought we were just a little inconsistent,” he said.
Then show us that consistency, coach. A fanbase is waiting.
There are 147 days until the mistakes matter.
Aug. 30, the Wolverines will touch the banner and be greeted by ‘The Victors.’ The captains will meet at midfield, and then the ball will be put on a tee and booted across the field.
Then, ‘Team 135’ will etch its chapter in the book that is Michigan football.
In April, there are 147 days left to fix the interceptions, the dropped passes, the missed assignments. Against Appalachian State, Notre Dame and the rest? That’s when it matters. Right now, there’s still time to turn a roster of 100-plus athletes into a Big Ten Championship-caliber team.
That’s why, even when they don’t know the names, the children ask for autographs from anyone walking off the field in a Michigan uniform.
Right now, there’s still hope.
Zúñiga can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @the_zuniga.