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Takeaways from Jim Harbaugh, Michigan players’ comments at Big Ten Football Media Days

Culture was spoken of frequently, while everyone else had a pep in their step.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines, headlined by head coach Jim Harbaugh and a trio of players, helped kick off the 2021 football season on Thursday during the open of Big Ten Football Media Days in Indianapolis. Harbaugh was joined by three seniors in pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson, running back Hassan Haskins and linebacker Josh Ross.

Typically, these events bring about the same types of answers. Everyone just had the best offseasons of their lives. Everyone is in the best shape of their lives. The coaching staff had its best spring of installation that they have ever had. We know how these things typically go.

Given that Michigan has been in the submarine once again this offseason — partially due to hitting the reset button, partially because of the COVID-19 pandemic — there was still a fair amount to take away from Thursday’s gathering at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Harbaugh and the “culture change”

Harbaugh was more enthusiastic about being in a media setting than he normally is. Press conferences and scrums can be a bit monotonous at times, but he seemed relieved to be returning to a normal routine as they prep for the 2021 season. He mentioned last year how he was both a football and “COVID” coach. That checks out in hindsight, as you could tell by the end of the season how worn down he was. With the world returning to normal and an injection of fresh blood into the program, he seems more at ease and in his element than he has the last few years.

He and the players were also transparent about a shift in culture within the program this offseason. Harbaugh seemed to hint that there has been a more collaborative approach with his coaching staff, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

“When I sit in the defensive room and Mike Macdonald, our coordinator, is talking and there’s input coming from Coach Clink and George Helow and Shaun Nua, the dialogue that’s going on in the room is really tremendous. There’s Coach (Ron) Bellamy, as well, who has brought so much. And nobody’s afraid to talk. Nobody’s afraid to put their opinion out there and it gets batted around. I love that.

“It’s almost like a scrimmage, almost like a scrimmage is going on, ideas are flowing and getting talked through, and it’s a fun, exciting room. You can tell that there’s trust. You can tell that there’s trust in the room. Guys can speak their mind and be heard and then they bat it around and they get to a good result. So that’s been tremendous.”

Hutchinson touched on Macdonald’s cultural impact on the program so far, as well.

“I actually didn’t think about culture too much until probably last year or this year,” he said. “I thought it was more about Xs and Os and about being in the right gap or guys not being in the right gap, and that’s why we’re losing ballgames. I was kind of enlightened by (Mike Macdonald). He came in and we kind of discussed this, talking about culture and the importance of it. And he kind of opened my eyes to how you can have the greatest Xs and Os or the greatest plays, but if your team is not fully bought in and 1,000 percent invested in what you’re doing, it’s going to fail.”

Harbaugh and the players in attendance seemed energized and on the same page in messaging about the culture and attempting to speak their goals into existence. Harbaugh’s most viral quote of the day was what he had to say about the Michigan State and Ohio State rivalries. They were a far cry from the comments of “just another game on the schedule” of yesteryear.

“I’m here before you as enthusiastic and excited as I ever am, always am — even more — to have it, to win the championship,” Harbaugh said. “To beat Ohio, our rivals Michigan State, everybody. That’s what we want to do. And we’re gonna do it or die trying.”

Does any of this mean they are going to win more games? Who knows. Will they beat their rivals and turn the corner as a program? Hard to say. But it does feel like the bleeding has stopped and pressure is being applied to the wounds of the program. Harbaugh knows that his job is on the line and whatever happens next will be under the microscope. The players and coaches that stuck around know this too.

It is this reason that solidifies my belief that this is not a program destined to go 4-8/5-7/6-6 this year. There’s too much talent on the roster for that and there at least seems to be a unified vision. Whether they can find a way to win enough to keep this era of the program going remains to be seen. There could also be egg on my face at the season’s end for saying this.

But they certainly are not running from it.

The new defense

Not much is known about the new defensive system, but we know that it will be a riff on what the Baltimore Ravens were running with Macdonald’s influence as well as some different wrinkles thrown in. Hutchinson is a player that stands to benefit from a scheme that will seemingly be multiple in what it shows and where he lines up on the field.

The Ravens run a base 3-man front, which has bigger bodies taking up gaps upfront while the pass rush comes from the second level of the defense. But Michigan wants to be a little more unpredictable than it has, so someone like Hutchinson could be rushing the passer with his hand in the dirt as well as dropping back into a rush linebacker role. To facilitate this, Hutchinson told the media he plans to play around 260-265 pounds and has been watching film on the Ravens’ defense to hone in his role.

We will have to wait and see what shape the defense takes, but Macdonald is being talked up as a calmer presence and a bit more of a tactician than his predecessor was. Michigan hopes that multiplicity will help it adjust easier when the going gets tough moving forward.

The quarterback situation

Michigan named a starting quarterback coming out of spring football for the first time in the Harbaugh era when Cade McNamara was given the nod. Not a whole lot was said during media days that challenged that belief.

“Right now, Cade McNamara’s done a tremendous job,” Harbaugh said during his 15-minute podium session. He played in some games last year and did very well — went through spring practice and was outstanding. He’s our number one quarterback going into fall camp.”

What about J.J. McCarthy, the five-star freshman who seems destined for time sooner rather than later? He’s coming along.

“J.J. McCarthy has some of those very same qualities and did an excellent job in spring practice. He's fighting,” Harbaugh said. “He’s got the athletic ability and arm talent to get it done, but Cade McNamara’s not letting him take it away. And that’s probably the best thing for our team, for J.J., and for all of us.”

Harbaugh doubled down on this later in the day and said that it does not look like McNamara is going to let go of the job. Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman was a summer arrival, so he could make things interesting here. However, it seems like Michigan’s 1-2 punch at quarterback might be set.

Here are some other odds and ends bits from media day:

  • Speaking on why Bowman was brought in, Harbaugh confirmed it was a depth move given Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey’s transfers out of the program. They needed another arm and liked what Bowman brought to the table.
  • Dan Villari was mentioned with the quarterbacks, too. However, Harbaugh confirmed the rumors that they are planning to use him in a Taysom Hill-type of role with the team this year.
  • Three of Michigan’s starting offensive linemen are set in Ryan Hayes, Zak Zinter and Andrew Stueber. Hayes is locked in at left tackle, while Zinter could play center or guard. Stueber could play guard or tackle. There is a lot to sort out here still, but Chuck Filiaga was named as a player who had one of the best offseasons on the team.
  • Speaking of big offseasons, defensive tackle Mazi Smith’s name came up more than a few times when discussing players that had big offseasons. He is expected to finally take the leap in 2021.
  • Harbaugh mentioned Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum as running backs “1 and 1” with Donovan Edwards also in the mix for playing time. Edwards will see the field in Week 1 and be a contributor.
  • Michigan’s trio of starting wideouts heading into fall camp is Cornelius Johnson, Ronnie Bell and Mike Sainristil.
  • Josh Ross told the media that he feels like the new defense is more tailored to him in that it allows him to play more downhill from an inside linebacker role. He and Mike Barrett are Michigan’s starters there entering fall camp.
  • Hutchinson mentioned freshman linebacker Junior Colson as someone who has the look of a future star and a player that will have a role this season.
  • The starting cornerback battle is still ongoing, but Gemon Green is locked into one of the two spots. Vincent Gray and DJ Turner are fighting it out for the other. Harbaugh said that Jalen Perry and George Johnson could be candidates to move to safety.

Michigan will kick off its fall camp on Aug. 6, which gives them three full weeks of training and preparation, followed by a normal game week in the leadup to the Sept. 4 opener vs. Western Michigan.