While all teams are ultimately measured by wins and losses, the true measure of success is improvement. Hemingway wrote, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
Now, we would all take inferiority over former selves if it meant superiority over the Ohio State Buckeyes, but the point remains the same.
The 2021 Michigan Wolverines are a great example of improvement week to week. The defense used to struggle with screens (Washington), misdirection (Nebraska) and passes to the outside (Rutgers), but have cleaned up all three areas of vulnerability. (Please, stop a two-point conversion next to really hammer this point home).
The offense struggled throwing the ball (Washington) and scoring red zone touchdowns (Michigan State) and have since corrected both issues.
Individually, several players have taken strides this season, and others have taken leaps. Cornerback Vincent Gray went from holding every eligible receiver as they ran past him in 2020 to becoming a strength in coverage and exceptional as a tackler. Tight end Erick All has gone from leading the team in drops a year ago to being quarterback Cade McNamara’s most reliable target in 2021 and being responsible for the signature play of the season against Penn State.
Those players have demonstrated growth from the first game, but let’s narrow the scope. These are the players who have improved and really come on during the second half of 2021.
Donovan Edwards, RB
Donovan Edwards would not have even been in consideration for this list if not for last week. One game is a small sample size, but 10 catches for 170 yards and one touchdown by a running back is too loud to ignore.
Entering Saturday, Edwards had only two career catches and 155 all-purpose yards in seven appearances. The true freshman saw extended playing time against Maryland due to Blake Corum still being sidelined with an injury and head coach Jim Harbaugh not wanting to wear down starter Hassan Haskins before Ohio State.
Edwards’ late-season emergence provides another weapon for quarterback Cade McNamara and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis for the matchup with Ohio State.
Not bad for an 18-year-old.
DJ Turner, CB
DJ Turner earned his first career start in the seventh game of the season and has never looked back. Turner had an interception against Northwestern in that first start and had a pick-six (Michigan’s first since 2018) last weekend against Maryland.
Turner battled injuries through 2020 and, now healthy, we finally see the impact he can create. He has asserted himself as CB1 from the moment he became a starter and is only getting better with each game.
Michael Barrett, LB
Against Michigan State, the Spartans exploited a flaw in Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s scheme: substitutions. The Spartans ran an up-tempo attack that kept Michigan’s primary defenders on the field.
Unlike previous defensive schemes at Michigan, Macdonald showed a willingness to adapt the following game. Michael Barrett was inserted into the starting lineup against Indiana as a more versatile option for all three downs.
The move was seamless and Barrett has become an important chess piece down the stretch for this defense. Against Penn State, Barrett recorded three tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and one sack. His increased defensive role hasn’t slowed down his work on special teams either, as everyone saw against Maryland.
The kickoff return lateral to A.J. Henning will not go down as a touchdown pass, but the real ones will remember it as such.
Andrel Anthony, WR
It is impossible to have this list without Andrel Anthony. While his production has slowed in recent weeks due to injury, his Michigan State breakout game is the stuff of rivalry legend.
The East Lansing native recorded his first career reception against Michigan State and took it 93 yards for a touchdown. The true freshman finished the day with six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns.
Anthony has been banged up but by his one-handed catch against Maryland, it appears he is getting healthy at just the right time.