The Michigan Wolverines opened spring practice Monday morning, taking their first steps toward a mountain of high expectations for the 2016 season.
A year ago Jim Harbaugh started his first practices as head coach at his alma mater with a quarterback competition, a new defense that promised to be more aggressive than the last and a running game that had yet to reach its potential. Given the issues the Wolverines had to overcome and the personnel they had to do it, most assumed a return to the bowl season would be an acceptable first year for the new staff.
Ten wins -- including a 41-7 beatdown of Florida in the postseason -- and a talent-rich recruiting class later, the bar is much higher as this season's team takes the field for the first time Monday. Michigan once again has a quarterback competition, a new defensive coordinator who promises to be more aggressive than the last and a running game that has been inconsistent. This time, though, the Wolverines begin to search for solutions to those problems as a Big Ten title contender and thus a playoff hopeful. The questions to be answered this spring are familiar, but nothing about Michigan’s team is really the same.
The first and most obvious difference this spring is location. The Wolverines flew to Florida on Sunday to spend their first week of practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton. The unorthodox move is the most recent of Harbaugh’s disruptive innovations since coming back to the college game. It will put his team in the headlines again this week and has already stirred up enough controversy to become one of the bigger stories of the spring season across all of college football.
Michigan’s first spring with its new staff was built around grueling four-hour practice sessions designed to set a tone for the new culture and weed out those who weren’t willing to work. This year the team plans to mix in some fun ("We have some good plans for swim meets," Harbaugh said this month. "We’re gonna have putt-putt golf."). The coach also plans to spend part of his day off this week as a first base coach for the Detroit Tigers, who are an hour north starting their own spring training.
Until now, Harbaugh’s first 14 months on the job have consisted of two clearly delineated modes: the nose-to-the-grindstone, one-track-minded periods on the field and the attention-grabbing (intentional or unintentional) periods off the field. This week will be the first time the two sides of Harbaugh are folded so closely together. Though the SEC-rankling, viral meme side of his personality is likely to garner the lion’s share of attention in the coming days, the Wolverines will also be holding their first four practices of a consequential spring if they hope to live up to the lofty expectations that wait for them this fall.
Finding a new starter at quarterback and three new starters at linebacker are high on the to-do list. John O'Korn, a Houston transfer who sat out last season, is the front-runner at quarterback. His athleticism could add a new element to Michigan’s offense, which means establishing himself at the top of the depth chart early in the year could benefit the entire group.
The linebacker position is murkier. Senior Ben Gedeon's 70 career tackles and one start make him easily the most experienced player there. Getting the rest of the position up to speed (mentally and physically) will allow the talent in front and behind them to flourish. That will take some time for a young corps learning a new defense for the second time in two years under first-year coordinator Don Brown.
Progress was well ahead of schedule in Harbaugh’s first year, but the team will have to make another similar-sized leap if it hopes to climb ahead of Big Ten powers Ohio State and Michigan State and remain consistent enough to avoid scares from others in the conference. September and Ann Arbor are both a long way off for the Wolverines this week, but the first steps of an important season start this week, and they are worth watching closely.