Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis has a few modest goals for his final season of college football.
"Be No. 1 -- the undisputed No. 1," he said Saturday after a practice at Ford Field in his hometown of Detroit. "Our secondary was the No. 1 secondary in the country (last year). That’s what I’m looking for, our group being the best, winning some of those awards and getting a national championship. That’s where my mindset is, and all of our mindset is."
That prizefighter level of confidence isn’t rare for a cornerback, especially one who has been on a couple All-America teams and set a school record for breaking up passes last fall, but the way that it has trickled through the rest of the locker room is definitely something new at Michigan. So while the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach hasn’t disappeared in Ann Arbor, a 10-win season and high expectations have left the Wolverines comfortable enough with their progress to talk big about the big picture this spring.
Senior defensive end Chris Wormley has seen his side of the ball steadily improve in his first four years on campus. He, too, believes his position group has a chance to be the country’s best in 2016. He said so during the first week of spring practice and didn’t hesitate to stand behind the claim this past weekend. Of course, if you’re expecting the nation’s best secondary and defensive line, it follows that the entire defense under new coordinator Don Brown will also be No. 1, right?
"We were pretty close last year," Wormley said. "Coach Brown had statistically the best defense at (Boston College). You put those two together, it’s going to be pretty hard to stop us."
Brown’s Boston College defense allowed the fewest yards per game (254.3) in college football last fall. He takes over a more athletic group that finished sixth in points allowed and fourth in yards allowed last season under former coordinator D.J. Durkin.
Last season’s results, which included three consecutive shutouts, are the main reason Michigan’s players are willing to beat their chests a bit more this offseason. A year ago, the common chorus in Ann Arbor was "better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today." Players were unwilling to put in plain terms what they were expecting for their first season under new coach Jim Harbaugh, mostly because they didn’t know what to expect. A taste of success has emboldened them.
"Just seeing it from last year, seeing that, we have the capability of being one of the best teams and best defenses out there in the country," Lewis said. "Our ability to go out there and play (man-to-man coverage) every single down and get the job done, and see our numbers compared to some of the guys around the country."
Even Harbaugh, who says there is still "a long road to hoe" for this season’s team, sees some obvious steps forward from last spring.
"It’s a better athletic team," he said. "There is really good awareness, which a lot of time lets that athletic ability come out. I think we’re a more competitive team. All the things that I think are the most important things (have improved)."
Players say the coaching staff’s constant demand for competition also plays a big role in building that confidence. Whether that translates to winning championships, or winning awards or having the No. 1 defense in the country is anyone’s guess, but the Wolverines believe it will help. And they are confident enough to talk about it.