The warm feelings and predictions of greatness surrounding coach Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan football program have cut both ways for the Wolverines.
Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor in late 2014 theoretically thrust Michigan back to prominence, with the hope of restoring the program to the days when the Wolverines won Big Ten titles, boasted Heisman Trophy contenders and contended for national championships.
Even as late as the start of the 2020 season, sophomore quarterback Joe Milton was a Heisman dark horse and Michigan, fresh off dominating Minnesota on national TV was in position for a Big Ten c en route to the College Football Playoffs — and then what happened?
It was a seemingly age-old tale under Harbaugh: Michigan underperformed, losing four of its final five games.
The hits kept coming in the offseason. Harbaugh shuffled his coaching staff. The preseason USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll left the Wolverines out, while ranking five other Big Ten teams (four of whom U-M faces this season). Even Harbaugh’s standout time at Stanford was under attack, as he was omitted from ESPN’s top head coaches of the last 50 years, even as predecessors Rich Rodriguez, Lloyd Carr, and Bo Schembechler made the cut.
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Fifth-year senior defensive lineman Donovan Jeter attributes Michigan’s struggles to too many compliments.
“It’s nice to have compliments, but they can be one of the worst things that can happen to you if you want to be an elite, successful player,” Jeter said. “I feel like some people get compliments and then get complacent.”
“I think offense and defense, we’re not gonna be complacent, this year,” Jeter said. “I think after the Minnesota game, we were feeling ourselves a little too much. All the players were on social media and whatever else. I don’t wanna say ‘took our foot off the gas’ like we weren’t preparing hard, (but) we started feeling ourselves too much. In college football, you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter who you play.”
After beating Minnesota by 25 on Oct. 24, the Wolverines lost their next three, outscored 114-56, and then recovered only a bit of dignity in a triple-overtime victory at Rutgers. The season ended with COVID-19 cancellations against Maryland and Ohio State.
New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has brought a new mindset in Ann Arbor, though.
“You can play and zero-and-whatever team, you can play the best team, you gotta go in there with the same mindset every day — attack and want to get better,” Jeter said.
Most important, at least to Jeter, is that few are predicting success for the Wolverines, with most forecasts landing U-M anywhere from 5-7 to 9-3. Whatever the outcome may be, the energy surrounding fall camp is motivation to get better at every practice.
“We haven’t been getting many compliments over the last year, so I can’t — it wasn’t a compliment-filled year,” Jeter said. “I think we just preach this, ‘let’s just get 1% better every day.’ Don’t rest on what you did yesterday, last year. It doesn’t matter.
“You can’t go back and change, you can’t go back and fix it. I think we all have just been preaching to find something every day to get better on. Find one way to get a step closer to where we want to get to.”
Despite the renewed focus on improving technique, players are still aware of the flurry of social media comments about the team’s future. On Twitter, Jeter responded, “Say less,” when the coaches’ poll was revealed.
“Yeah, we’re all fired up about it. We know what the deal is. We don’t care about rankings, what y’all say on social media, we don’t care about any of that. We care about getting better every day and being a physical, efficient defense.”