Michigan football's players feel 'fired up,' refreshed by new coaching staff

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Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·4 min read
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Michigan football is just over a week into spring practices, and players just began practicing with pads Friday.

Yet a few of the Wolverines have already noticed a difference within the program, aside from the new defense being installed.

“Everyone in this building, every single coach is kind of ecstatic and you can kind of feel that high energy in practice,” defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said Tuesday. “In practice, I’ve seen some energy, some things I’ve never seen these past three years being on this team. Just those little things — you can tell that guys just want to play ball.

Adam Shibley (45) of the Michigan Wolverines, Anthony Solomon (10) of the Michigan Wolverines and Aidan Hutchinson (97) of the Michigan Wolverines celebrate after Michigan State Spartans missed a field goal during the fourth quarter at Michigan Stadium on Oct. 31, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Adam Shibley (45) of the Michigan Wolverines, Anthony Solomon (10) of the Michigan Wolverines and Aidan Hutchinson (97) of the Michigan Wolverines celebrate after Michigan State Spartans missed a field goal during the fourth quarter at Michigan Stadium on Oct. 31, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“Guys are fired up, whether that be the new coaches, whether that be they just love football, but you can just tell in practice that there’s a different type of energy around Schembechler (Hall).”

Hutchinson and his teammates are coming off a 2-4 finish in 2020, their worst season yet under coach Jim Harbaugh. The poor performance led to an offseason filled with changes — especially on the defensive side of the ball. After the unit finished No. 89 in total defense and No. 95 in scoring defense, Harbaugh fired defensive coordinator Don Brown.

Brown's replacement, Mike Macdonald, has already made a positive early impression upon the players, as have the five other new coaches (three on defense, two on offense).

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“Every single day you come out to practice, it’s just joy, fun, everybody’s laughing with each other, everybody’s having a good time,” safety Brad Hawkins said. “Bring a lot of energy to practices, to meeting rooms. Things like that. Everybody’s willing to learn, everybody’s willing to teach. Just learning different things from NFL guys, from guys that came from different programs, just learning different things. That definitely brings a lot of enthusiasm to the program, to practice, things like that.”

Collectively, Michigan's assistant coaches are an average of 35.3 years old, with all 10 coaches under the age of 40. Yet Hutchinson told reporters Tuesday afternoon that “this is probably the smartest staff I've been around.”

“Just in these few weeks that I’ve had with this staff, I have learned so much more about the game of football, so much more about defenses, all that stuff, just because of the coaches we’ve brought in,” Hutchinson continued. “The age doesn’t really affect your knowledge of the game to an extent. Obviously, if you’ve been around the game for 40 years, you’re going to know a lot about football. Although we got these young guys, they know a lot.”

The biggest difference in experience is at defensive coordinator. Brown led multiple defenses to top-10 finishes during his tenure at Michigan with almost four decades as a defensive play-caller. Macdonald, meanwhile, has never been a coordinator before.

Hutchinson was impressed from the first time he met Macdonald.

“He’s very precise with his words,” Hutchinson said, “and he’s just very articulate.”

Of course, even with the positive first impressions of the new staff, Michigan's defense still has a long road back to respectability.

The Wolverines lost several key contributors, including star pass-rusher Kwity Paye, linebacker Cameron McGrone and defensive lineman Carlo Kemp. The new scheme, meanwhile, will take time to learn (Hawkins said he believes the defense is on its fourth period of install, with new chunks coming every other day).

Every successful rebuild requires buy-in from the players. And it seems like Michigan's are all-in right now — which only bodes well for Macdonald and the other new assistants.

“Coach (Macdonald) came in here with a lot of energy and it’s kind of a different type of focus,” Hutchinson said. “You can tell he’s been in the league for the past eight years, he’s kinda got that way about him. I like what we’re doing with the defense, I like the culture that he is instilling in us, I think he’s doing a really good job and I’m just fired up to have him as my coach.”

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Michigan Wolverines content.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Michigan football players are fired up heading into 2021 season