The Michigan football team is off to a much better start this season and the stark contrasts from last year go beyond the playing field. Players are much more positive about the team’s approach and this renewed energy has played a big role in the Wolverines 3-0 start.
But the major shift in team culture didn’t start in the 53-point blowout of NIU. Or the Maize Out. Or week one. Players started noticing changes in spring ball and have been riding the momentum ever since.
“There was one practice [at the start of spring ball] where we had a whole bunch of picks and after every pick we were jumping around, talking trash to the offense, running around,” sophomore safety RJ Moten said. “After that I think it just sparked a fire. We hang out more as a secondary. We’ll text each other everyday...because we’re a lot closer. Being able to have that type of bond has really helped us out this year.”
The cohesion among the defensive backs has definitely paid dividends. Through three games, Michigan has allowed 34 points total. At this point last season, they’d allowed 79.
New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has brought an NFL style attitude from his time with the Ravens. He’s changed up the scheme and is utilizing players to play to their strengths. Beyond the x’s and o’s, he’s giving the team a more professional approach to the game and this has the team clicking.
“It definitely is more than just confidence,” Moten said. “After practice, we’re doing more. We’re going back up and watching practice. We’re watching more film on the upcoming opponent. We’re watching more film on certain players, certain formations. We’re really just diving deeper into the game instead of just ending practice and leaving.”
The defense has been much more efficient so far and by getting off the field quickly, they're getting more opportunities for the offense. Offensive players, like sophomore offensive lineman Zak Zinter, have also noticed the team’s mental shift. The o-line has been critical for fueling Michigan’s explosive running game to this point and while other people are starting to take notice, Zinter knew this group had a spark from the start.
“A lot of people on the outside still didn’t really believe in us,” Zinter said. “We believed in ourselves. The same people that are telling us we’re great now said we were going to be terrible a month ago. We still have that mindset that we have a lot to prove and we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Keeping that underdog mentality — which many Wolverines mentioned back at Big Ten media day — is getting more difficult as expectations rise for the team. Regardless of the inferior opponents, three resounding wins could have the team thinking about bigger goals than just beating Rutgers. But this year’s squad isn’t going to have that attitude.
“We just go week-by-week,” Zinter said. “Every team is going to bring something else. Rutgers is going to come in here 3-0, hungry, ready to go. We just have the mindset that we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
The defense is humming. The offense has chemistry. Now, as the Wolverines enter Big Ten play and the opponents get tougher, the team has to stick to the traits that have got them to this point. But Michigan football has a different feel than last year and if that’s the case, a collapse like last year isn’t coming.
“It's the best (team) that I’ve been around,” Zinter said. “We’re just one big family.”