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Fall camp questions: Will Jim Harbaugh’s reboot pay dividends in 2021?

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With Michigan kicking off training camp this week, the offseason changes are now going to play themselves out.

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

The Michigan Wolverines begin their fall camp leading up to the 2021 season on Aug. 6, which will see them finally answer some of the biggest questions we have about them.

It is tough to do a deep dive on any of the questions we might have given that a lot of it is based on opinion and projection. Some of these things might be able to be quantified, but Jim Harbaugh’s attempted reboot of the program seven years into his tenure certainly is not one of them.

We do not need to spend a ton of time dwelling on the past. Michigan has not won a Big Ten title under Harbaugh. It has not beaten Michigan State nearly enough and has not beaten Ohio State at all. They have not won a bowl game since the first calendar day of 2016. COVID-impacted 2-4 season or not in 2020, frustrations have been boiling over in Ann Arbor for the last couple of seasons.

Last year felt like the first time where we started to hear even the most level-headed people indicate that they may have seen enough from this iteration of the program. The product on the field was a disorganized and disheveled mess even without injuries that piled up.

Typically, contracts with football coaches are not left to linger until there is one year left on the deal. That is what wound up happening with Harbaugh’s contract. Athletic director Warde Manuel was not ready to move on but did negotiate a contract that worked for both sides in their current predicament.

Harbaugh agreed to a five-year extension that slashed his base salary in half while allowing him to earn it back with incentives such as winning the Big Ten East, making the College Football Playoff, etc. For Michigan, this is stability on paper only unless they can get back to what the earlier seasons of the Harbaugh era looked like.

Harbaugh was out of the spotlight for a bit when the 2020 season ended. He signed his new contract and got to work, which included a complete facelift of the defense and parting ways with longtime coordinator Don Brown. Mike Macdonald came over from the Baltimore Ravens and spent the offseason installing what projects to be a 3-4 defense that wants to be multiple in its looks. The only coach retained from Brown’s defensive coaching staff was Shaun Nua, who remains the team’s defensive line coach. George Helow (linebackers), Ron Bellamy (safeties) and Maurice Linguist (defensive backs/co-defensive coordinator) would fill out the rest of the staff, giving Michigan a younger flare on the defensive side of the ball. Linguist would depart after spring football after being hired as the head coach at the University of Buffalo. His replacement is Steve Clinkscale, who comes over from Kentucky and will be the team’s passing game coordinator.

The feedback here has been pretty positive from players so far. Macdonald has been talked up as a calmer presence, and potentially a bit more of a tactician than his predecessor was. This was still a woeful defense last season and they are talent deficient in a few critical areas, namely at linebacker and cornerback. But the idea that Michigan could be more multiple in its looks defensively is probably a season or two overdue.

Michigan retained Josh Gattis to coordinate the offense. Sherrone Moore will be his co-offensive coordinator and line coach. Jay Harbaugh moves to tight ends and special teams, while former Michigan star back Mike Hart will now lead the running back room. Jim Harbaugh originally planned to coach the quarterbacks, but would later bring in Matt Weiss from the Ravens to fill that position.

The offense was nearly as dreadful as the defense was last season, so there had to be some sort of change here. Hart might be the biggest hire that Harbaugh was able to make this offseason. He is not just a “Michigan Man” and is one of the rising young assistants in college football. The running back room is arguably the most talented on the roster and he is more than qualified to coach them.

Harbaugh did more than just shake up his coaching staff. There were also administrative moves made that help guide and streamline the recruiting process moving forward, as well as enhance the program’s branding as we head into the next era of college athletics. Matty Dudek left the program to take a job at Mississippi State with former Wolverine Courtney Morgan replacing him. Around him in support roles are Christina DeRuyter as the Director of On-Campus Recruiting and Sydney Sims in branding and social media.

The thing that Michigan fans will not want to hear is to wait until next year or that this might take time. However, knowing if some of these changes are going to work might take longer than one year. It takes time to install a new defensive system, but they should be better this year given there is nowhere to go but up. The current recruiting woes are only going to sort themselves out with wins, but a shakeup on the back end was probably needed.

How well the offense performs might be what makes or breaks Harbaugh’s future. If they can get stable quarterback play, there is enough talent on the roster to get to 8 or 9 wins this year. Cade McNamara and/or J.J. McCarthy’s development might just determine how much longer this experiment goes. No pressure, fellas.

For the Harbaugh era to continue, Michigan has to have young contributors emerge on both sides of the ball and they have to compete in the toughest games on the schedule. You cannot go to Madison and Happy Valley and get shelled. You cannot lose to a Michigan State team you are more talented than for the second year in a row. You have to put up a respectable effort against the juggernaut Ohio State Buckeyes. You can sell hope for 2022 if this happens as proof that your vision is working.

There has been a lot of talk this offseason about a culture change and how rejuvenated everyone in the building is. We heard it after the Minnesota game last year, too. Then when they got punched in the mouth, they did not get off the mat the rest of the season. We’ll know where the season is headed as soon as the going gets tough for the first time and how they respond to it.

Until then, all we are left to do is sit and hope that 2020 does not repeat itself.