ANN ARBOR, Mich. — 2021 is ancient history inside Schembechler Hall.
While there is still some celebratory aspects of the program beating Ohio State for the first time since 2011 and winning its first Big Ten Championship since 2004 — like, for instance, a new graphic that made its way onto some doors celebrating the College Football Playoff berth and conference win — this team that’s currently partaking in spring ball realizes it can’t rest on last year’s laurels.
This time a year ago, a graphic made its way into the weight room (and it’s still up) that reads: ‘What are you doing to beat Ohio State today?’ While that seems like a rejuvenating mantra when you haven’t beaten your rival in some time, what’s it like after you have? Inside Schembechler Hall, the biggest enemy of progress is satisfaction, whether it’s the win over the Buckeyes, or emerging from Indianapolis victorious the week later.
“Really, just not getting complacent,” junior safety RJ Moten said. “You know, we could say that we did it. I could say that I did — I beat Ohio State, I won the Big Championship, but you know, now there’s a new — we’re a new team. I think it’s 143. Now, it’s just the kids that were part of 142 last year, we just can’t get complacent because that ends up carrying on to younger kids and we just want to go back to the Big Ten Championship and go further than just the semifinal game. So really just complacency.”
Though the offense certainly could be explosive in 2022, questions surround the defense, which replaces Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, Dax Hill and others, as well as defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. There are newer names that have to step up, like edge rushers Mike Morris and fifth-year end Taylor Upshaw — both of whom will be playing under a new defensive coordinator (Jesse Minter) as well as defensive line coach (Mike Elston).
Upshaw says this team wants to do more than beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten. In order to maintain the proverbial shoulder chip, these Wolverines have an eye on a grander prize: a national championship.
“Maintaining what we just had, like maintaining the season and building off that,” Upshaw said. “We have a lot of new guys are gonna have to take, including myself, they’re gonna have to take on roles they’ve never had. So it’s not like, ‘Oh, we’re good.’ We have a lot to prove. I have a lot to prove. Our teammates have lots to prove and we’re not satisfied. We didn’t win a national championship. That’s something our team wants to do this year. So that’s how you keep focused, because we didn’t accomplish everything we wanted to.
“(We were) good year last year, but it’s over with.”
Why Michigan’s offense is poised to continue taking steps forward
Final Michigan football 5-star target from 2022 class sets commitment date
The Big House to get new, bigger scoreboards
While the coaching personnel aspect of the offseason has been loud in Ann Arbor, with Jim Harbaugh having interviewed for an NFL job while both coordinators departed, those inside the locker room have the same mentality as last year.
It might be easy to chalk the 2021 campaign up to fluke status, but if you paid attention to the program at this time last year, everyone involved expressed supreme optimism at the team’s resurgence. It then played out methodically, from the Week 2 win over Washington, to the Week 5 road win at Wisconsin, to the Week 13 beatdown of rival OSU.
With the quiet of the locker room, questions have loomed about complacency and how will Michigan perform without having the added incentive to get the proverbial monkey off its back. But, instead, the shoulder chips persist, Upshaw says, because the outside doubt in the program remains.
“We’re coming off a successful season, but I feel like Michigan always has had that chip on their shoulder,” Upshaw said. “Michigan is always going to be doubted, the players who are stepping into new roles are always going to be doubted. So it really just feels like the same atmosphere. I think Cade McNamara has done a good job of trying to tell everybody to maintain the atmosphere because we’re not satisfied.”
Sixth-year tight end Joel Honigford has been through a lot of iterations of Michigan football, from 2018’s 10-3 season to 2020’s 2-4 campaign to last year’s College Football Playoff run. This spring, he’s seen ways that the Wolverines aren’t just maintaining last year’s energy and drive, they’re further honing and crafting the winning formula.
“So I’ll give you an example: we go in the weight room and we line our shoes up last year and we put them right next to each other right up against the wall at a 90-degree angle,” Honigford explained. “That’s how we did it last year. We go in this offseason, and that’s how we did it — we lined them up like that. And Coach Herbert comes in. He’s like, ‘That’s not how we’re doing this.’ So instead, he lined them all up like that in a line and we like measured it out. He’s like instead I want you to flip the right shoe backward. So they’re close together and line them up the same way. So we do that. And we see how much of a difference that actually made.
“Now you take that and you apply it to how we’re playing. And like, you want to critique more of the fine details than ever before. Because like, yeah, we know what it takes. But we also know what it takes to be a 2-4 team as well. So I heard you talking earlier about a chip on your shoulder and that 2-4 season, we definitely had a chip on our shoulder. But coming off a Big Ten Championship season, College Football Playoff season, we still have a chip on our shoulder, it just looks different. And I think a lot of guys understand that. And understand what we need to do to become national champions, and what it takes to get there. It’s all about just fine details, and really honing that in.”
The schedule certainly is favorable to the Wolverines this upcoming year, with three imminently winnable nonconference games before Big Ten season starts with Maryland and then a trip to Iowa City. Penn State and Michigan State are at home, though a road trip to Columbus still looms.
Regardless, this Michigan team, while happy that it accomplished so much a year ago, wants to strive for the grand prize, because if anything, 2021 showed the players that more is possible if you work hard enough and believe in each other.
“Yeah, I mean, seeing that success last year, you know, we were right there, we got the Big Ten Championship, it was nice. It was really good feeling. It’s been a while,” Honigford said. “But we’re not national champions. And I know that we can be and I want to go get that with the rest of these guys on this team.”