ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Can we have an honest discussion about Michigan football? There were four goals Jim Harbaugh desperately needed to accomplish this offseason, and it looks like he did so with flying colors. But at what point do we stop celebrating offseason titles and wait for success on the field?
This was one of the most important offseasons in program history for Michigan. That’s not hyperbole -- it’s a fact. Michigan is in a place where the gap between itself and Ohio State has widened to an alarming distance, and it’s happening with a qualified, accomplished coach at the helm.
Harbaugh’s first order of business was to make necessary changes to his staff. Loyalty is important to Harbaugh, and that’s not a bad thing. But it was clear he needed to upgrade at a few spots.
Most notably, defensive coordinator Don Brown had to be replaced. Ambry Thomas can tweet all he wants about how it was unfair for Michigan to fire Brown, but that’s not true. He’s allowed to defend his coach, but Michigan needed a change.
In the early stages of Brown’s tenure, the “Dr. Blitz” mentality worked like a charm. Jabrill Peppers and Khaleke Hudson were perfect vipers. Elite pass rushers caused chaos in opposing backfields. The Wolverines were a top five defense annually.
But the cracks in the scheme started to show against Ohio State in 2018, then again in 2019. As Brown struggled to find ways to generate pressure, the defense suffered catastrophically. Rocky Lombardi marched up and down the field against Michigan in 2020, as did Rutgers and a then-winless Penn State.
Brown had some great years in Ann Arbor, and for that, Harbaugh was grateful. This offseason, though, it was time for a change, and Harbaugh did what needed to be done.
The next order of business was to keep the 2021 recruiting class together despite speculation about Harbaugh’s contract and an awful season on the field.
Not an easy task.
But Harbaugh’s staff not only kept the majority of the class together -- they added to it. Despite the loss of a couple of defensive commits, the early signing day was a success.
Michigan held onto star prospects such as quarterback J.J. McCarthy while adding West Bloomfield running back Donovan Edwards and securing wide receiver Xavier Worthy.
Jaydon Hood and Ja’Den McBurrows weren’t expected to sign letters of intent, but they did. Overall, Michigan finished December with the No. 12 class in the nation.
Hire new coaches
After Harbaugh and Warde Manuel finally settled his contract debacle -- it took far too long and was handled poorly from a timing standpoint -- he needed to assemble a coaching staff to change the culture.
Harbaugh has a bit of a reputation for being set in his ways and wanting his team to have a certain look. He needed to overcome that with these hires.
New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is an unproven play caller, but he appears to be an innovative defensive mind.
Ron Bellamy is a highly regarded teacher with deep recruiting ties in the state.
Maurice Linguist and George Harlow are breaths of fresh air on the defensive side, and their former players speak highly of them.
Mike Hart was a welcomed addition as running back coach. Not only is a former fan favorite -- he also had success developing running backs at Indiana.
All five of the coaches Harbaugh hired are younger than 40. That isn’t necessarily a positive for a negative, but it shows a willingness to try something new.
Address defensive tackle
Michigan’s approach to the defensive tackle position during the late Brown era was, to put it kindly, curious. Brown and his staff acted as if it wasn’t important to have any type of presence on the interior of the defensive line.
Moves like converting Ben Mason from fullback and starting Jess Speight put a bandaid on a gushing wound while a handful of former highly ranked recruits fizzled out.
Michigan didn’t even recruit the position for two years despite it being the most glaring weakness on the roster. It was a bizarre approach.
Luckily, with the new staff in place, defensive tackle appears to be a priority again.
Last week, Michigan landed a commitment from four-star George Rooks, the No. 19 defensive tackle in the 2021 class.
On Wednesday -- the start of the late signing period -- the Wolverines flipped four-star defensive tackle Rayshaun Benny from Michigan State. He’s the No. 6 player in Michigan and the No. 16 defensive tackle for 2021.
Finally, Colorado commit Ikechukwu Iwunnah signed with Michigan, giving them another big body to compete for snaps on the interior.
Just like that, Michigan added three legitimate defensive tackles -- two of which rank in the top 20 at the position.
Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
Will this translate to wins?
We’ve said this before, and we’re saying it again: Michigan has had a very promising, successful offseason. But will that lead to better results on the field?
Yes, Michigan stole Michigan State’s best recruit in heartbreaking fashion. That’s a nice victory, but the problem is it’s the only victory Michigan got over its in-state rival this season. On the field, the Wolverines lost to the worst MSU team in decades.
Guess what? The talent gap next season won’t be any wider than it was in 2020.
What about Ohio State? Michigan signed the No. 10 class in the nation. Awesome, Ohio State is No. 2. Michigan has six players ranked among the top 200 nationally. The Buckeyes have 12 in the top 100.
Hiring an exciting young coaching staff and landing a top 10 recruiting class is much, much better than the alternative. To be fair, this very well could have been -- and was once trending toward being -- a disastrous offseason. Harbaugh did an excellent job turning the tide.
Still, as Michigan fans run victory laps on social media and message boards, the rest of the country is thinking, “So what? Michigan does this every year. What’s different?”
Maybe its own fan base should be asking the same question.