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An Era of Change: Things to Watch Following Michigan's Undefeated Season

Courtesy of David Guralnick, Detroit News

Back in the Public Eye

The University of Michigan Spring Football Game has now come and gone, taking place on April 20th, ending in a victory by the maize team, 17-7.

Throughout the 2023-2024 season, the Michigan Wolverines continued making headlines. Most importantly, there was the National Championship win of 34-13 over Washington in Houston, after Head Coach Jim Harbaugh led his own alma mater back to the greatest accomplishment in college football with their first national title. Then, there was the celebratory parade back in Ann Arbor, filled with fans prouder than ever to be Michigan Wolverines. 

The late-April game marks the program’s first on-field return to the public eye following an offseason riddled with change. With major changes to the coaching staff, the roster, and surrounding staff, this game showcased the new Wolverines, as they were led on the field by their most important change: new Head Coach Sherrone Moore.

"They want more," Moore said of his players' mentality during a news conference last March. "They always got that chip on their shoulder. You win the natty, you would think people would be so satisfied that we won the natty and that's it. That's not it. We want more."  Many can agree that they showed their want in the 2024 Spring Game.

Here is a recap of the Spring Game, and some things to look out for next season:

Courtesy of Emma Genig (@emmagenig on Instagram)

Bye Bye Harbaugh

For the first time since 2015, Harbaugh did not lead the Wolverines into Michigan Stadium for the annual Spring Game. The team’s three consecutive trips to the College Football Playoffs strengthened Harbaugh’s coaching resume enough for the LA Chargers to welcome him back into the NFL, a spot that he held from 2011-2014 with the San Francisco 49ers. This move, finalized in late January, merely two weeks after Michigan won the National Championship, furthers Harbaugh’s pursuit of a Super Bowl.

The following search for Harbaugh’s replacement ended just how Harbaugh had hoped, with Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel promoting Sherrone Moore from offensive coordinator to full-time head coach.

During the 2023-2024 season, it was Moore who led Michigan through four of the six games Harbaugh missed whilst serving various suspensions. And, it was Moore’s leadership and play-calling skills that protected Michigan’s perfect record until Harbaugh’s return. More importantly, it was Moore’s use of these skills that helped the Wolverines beat their greatest rival, Ohio State, for a victory in The Game for the third year in a row.

However, there was nothing about Moore’s first weeks in this position that were easy. Harbaugh took defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, defensive line coach Mike Elston, defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale, and defensive assistant Dylan Roney with him to Los Angeles, as well as director of strength and conditioning Ben Herbert. Moore was left in Ann Arbor practically staff-less, and began to search for fit replacements as spring practices were drawing closer and closer.

During this search, Moore flew under the radar, which was unlike anything his former boss ever did. 

"I don't want any attention on me," Moore said. "I want it on our players. Everything that has to do with the players, that's what it's all about. I'm going to stay low and hidden as much as I can and let the players get the credit and the limelight. Allow them to flourish and work as hard as I can to make sure they're in a place to be successful."

This year’s Spring Game was his first time back in the spotlight. 

Courtesy of David Guralnick, Detroit News

Quarterback Evaluation

One of the biggest decisions that Moore and offensive coordinator Kirk Campbell must make between now and the season opener is who will replace J.J. McCarthy at quarterback. 

McCarthy came to Ann Arbor in 2021 as the most talked about quarterback prospect of the program during Harbaugh’s time as coach. In January 2024, McCarthy declared for the NFL Draft, and on April 25th he was drafted as the Minnesota Vikings’ tenth overall pick. As he makes his way into the NFL, he brings an amazing collegiate career with him. It was one filled with many notable accomplishments, having beaten rival Ohio State three times, and having won three B1G titles, bringing the team their first national championship since 1997. It is clear that McCarthy’s position will be hard to fill.

As it currently stands, the crowded quarterback room includes seventh-year graduate student Jack Tuttle, senior Davis Warren, juniors Alex Orji and Jayden Denegal, and true freshman Jadyn Davis. The only player with any starting experience is Tuttle, who transferred from Indiana ahead of the 2023 campaign.

Four of those quarterbacks appeared in the Spring Game, with Alex Orji as the starter for the blue team and Davis Warren as the starter for the maize team. 

Alex Orji was 13-of-18 for 103 yards, rushed for 19 yards, and added a rushing touchdown. Overall, he showcased his speed and had some nice short- and intermediate-timing throws. But, he also threw a couple of inaccurate balls, all which missed by a wide margin. Orji is reportedly the leading in-house candidate, after seeing the field in certain run-heavy packages last season. The former three-star prospect has only attempted one pass in college, which was only a 5-yard completion in 2022. It remains unanswered whether he's improved enough as a thrower to be a viable starter for a team that is eager to reach the playoffs for the fourth year in a row.

Davis Warren was 6-of-9 for 136 yards, had two touchdowns, and had by far the best day. Warren was the only quarterback with passing touchdowns, and he threw a nice deep ball to Kendrick Bell, and hit Fredrick Moore on the money for another 6 points.

Jayden Denegal was 2-of-6 for 39 yards with one interception. However, that interception ended unfortunately. Truly a rookie error, Denegal, scrambling to his right and throwing on the run, handed it right to a waiting DJ Waller.

Jadyn Davis was 2-of-4 for 20 yards. Jack Tuttle, who head coach Sherrone Moore said was working through some things on the injury front, did not participate.

In terms of QB1, the program is far from a decision. The Spring Game is just a small glimpse into how things are trending at every position, including the QB. Based on the output at quarterback during the Spring Game, however, it seems like the position is wide open. Furthermore, the fact that Tuttle did not play provides even less insight into the minds of the program. 

Kirk Campbell spoke on the quarterback race in mid-March, saying he was "super excited about the room. We have five guys right now in that room that are gonna have an opportunity to vie for that starting job. Just excited to see how it goes. We're taking one day at a time. Everything's an evaluation: from meetings to practice, how they carry themselves in the weight room, how they get along with the team, to completion percentage to decision-making. Constantly evaluating that. We've got a lot of talent in there. It's my job to get the best out of them."

Courtesy of David Guralnick, Detroit News

The Don is Back

Donovon Edwards rushed for 33 yards on five carries, and had bounce to his game, looking good in limited action. Along with this great performance, Edwards appeared to have bulked up, adding weight and muscle to his frame, only reinforcing the fact that he is the obvious RB1 for this season. His performance this season will be the true tell of the trajectory of Michigan’s offense.

Courtesy of Wolverines Wire

On Wink Watch

During the “Harbaugh Era”, defensive coordinators Mike Macdonald (2021-2022) and Jesse Minter (2022-2024) were extracted from the Baltimore Ravens organization. 

Macdonald, returning to the Ravens after one record-breaking season in Ann Arbor, saw Michigan beat Ohio State for the first time in a decade, as well as make their way to the CFP for the first time in school history during the 2021-2022 season. Michigan’s defense under Macdonald ranked eighth in the country, allowing only 17.4 points per game.

To fill his spot, Harbaugh turned yet again to an ex-Raven who actually interviewed at the same time as Macdonald. Minter, former defensive backs coach in Baltimore, joined the Wolverines following one season as defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt. With his addition, Michigan got even better, as they were seventh in scoring in 2022, allowing 16.1 points per game, and first in 2023, allowing just 10.4 points per game. 

It is clear that Minter took Macdonald’s carefully laid foundation and built the nation’s best defense on it. Therefore, it was clear to Coach Moore to revisit Baltimore’s coaching history to find Minter’s replacement. And he did just that, allocating $2 million per year for Don “Wink” Martindale, the Ravens’ former defensive coordinator from 2018-2021, a time when both Macdonald and Minter were on staff. From 2022 to 2024, Martindale was the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants.

Martindale has referred to himself as the “OG” of the amazing defensive system Macdonald and Minter put into place. He began coaching at the collegiate level at Notre Dame (1994-1995), Cincinnati (1996-1998), Western Illinois (1999), and Western Kentucky (2000-2003). This was all while working under Minter's father, Rick Minter, as well as Harbaugh's father, Jack Harbaugh, along the way. Martindale has worked exclusively in the NFL since 2004.

The group he has inherited at the University of Michigan is one of the most talented in the country, especially after bringing back a number of key contributors from the national title-winning team. Cornerback Will Johnson and defensive tackles Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant could all be first-round picks in the 2025 NFL Draft, and fellow returners Makari Paige (safety), Derrick Moore (edge), Josaiah Stewart (edge), Ernest Hausmann (inside linebacker) and Quinten Johnson (safety) all logged at least 300 snaps last season.

It is clear that the program itself is excited to have Martindale. "Wink's awesome, man," Coach Moore said. "I love Wink. Just a great, vibrant person. Great human being, but obviously an extremely intelligent coach. Super excited. The boys love him. He brings such a great vibe to the team."

Courtesy of David Guralnick, Detroit News

Looking Forward

With the conclusion of Michigan’s Spring Game, it is evident that despite the multitudes of changes happening to the program, the Wolverines want one thing: to reach the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. 

They are working, learning, and growing. With the help of head coach Sherrone Moore, and his excellent new coaching staff, it’s clear that Michigan is here, ready, and back for more.

Among all this, Michigan has one true goal: to continue to be the leaders and best.

Edited by Emilia Morello

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