The Michigan Wolverines have had several things that have ailed them on the football field the last number of years. Many could best be described as papercuts as opposed to flesh wounds. However, it all caught up to them dramatically during the 2020 season, which will go down as one of the worst in the modern era of the program.
What happened last fall was the culmination of a lot of tiny problems that snowballed on them. They were pushed further by the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. It was disheartening to everyone involved and pandemic or not, what we saw demanded major changes.
There is a large chunk of the fanbase that would argue the root cause of all of it goes right to head coach Jim Harbaugh. That line of thinking is not without merit. But Michigan elected to keep him on — at a reduced salary, mind you — and make the changes he needs to make to get this operation back on track.
He is here and that is not changing for at least another season, so let us just get that out of the way.
The biggest change of the offseason so far has come in the form of a total facelift on defense. Coordinator Don Brown is out and has been replaced by a young up-and-comer in former Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Mike Macdonald. Mike Zordich is gone from coaching the cornerbacks with his spot being filled by Maurice Linguist, who will co-coordinate with Macdonald. George Helow fills the safeties coach slot that was never really filled by Bob Shoop last season.
Without doing too much of an autopsy on Michigan’s defensive struggles, one of the biggest plot threads has been the lack of development at defensive tackle since Maurice Hurst last wore a winged helmet in 2017.
It has remained a disappointment over the last three seasons and was still a major need as recent as a week ago.
Defensive line coach Shaun Nua was retained by Harbaugh. The idea was that his efforts were stymied by the system that was in place, including priorities on the recruiting trail. We might not know how much validity there is to that, but his efforts as a recruiter as of late seem to back that up.
Michigan secured the commitments from a trio of defensive tackle prospects over the last seven days culminating in all three of them signing with the program on Wednesday.
The Wolverines landed a commitment from four-star George Rooks last week and flipped a pair of prospects during the February signing period in four-star Rayshaun Benny (Michigan State) and three-star Ikechukwu Iwunnah (Colorado). These are Michigan’s first true defensive tackle commitments that will hit campus since Greg Mattison left for Ohio State in early 2019.
(Note: Five-star Chris Hinton and four-star Mazi Smith of the 2019 class committed while Mattison was still on Harbaugh’s staff).
Nua and offensive line coach/co-offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore had their hands all over these recruitments and they deserve props for that. But it was also the energy of guys like Macdonald, Linguist and Ron Bellamy that are already paying dividends weeks after their hirings. The move to go younger is paying off.
Benny’s flip away from the rival Spartans was the most notable of the day. He had been a top target for Michigan throughout the process but decided to join head coach Mel Tucker shortly after MSU’s 27-24 win in Ann Arbor this past season. That was a tough pill to swallow for Michigan, but they maintained contact and once Benny did not sign in December, the full-court press remained on.
While it is far too soon to call this a position of strength now for Michigan, they have some prospects to work with now. No disrespect to any of the kids on the roster, but the 240 pounds defensive ends from the east coast being converted to tackles was never going to be a recipe for success. The Wolverines took a massive step in correcting that over the last seven days.
They need to be developed and coached up, which has been a big part of the problem. But you’ll take your chances with a couple of four-star guys as opposed to what the alternative was before. Nua has been an asset for Michigan in recent weeks, but will ultimately be defined by how he develops what’s on the roster mixed with what is coming in.
There are no guarantees when it comes to recruiting. Michigan football fans are well-versed in this area of expertise. They have talented players coming in at a major position of need, which is much more than they could have said previously. It should provide at least a sliver of hope that the staff is working on correcting what ails them.