ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Heading into the 2021 season, there was considerable conversation about the youth movement on the Michigan football team and how much it had changed the environment.
But that was all about the injection of youth on Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s staff, as he made several under-40 assistant-coach hires. The players responded saying they found the younger coaches more relatable, wanting an exchange of ideas, and they felt they were given ownership of the team.
This season, it’s a different sort of youth movement.
Key starters who have helped lead Michigan to a 13-0 season are sophomores and freshmen, notably sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy, sophomore running back Donovan Edwards, sophomore safety Rod Moore, who has made 16 starts, and a number of freshmen, including tight end Colston Loveland, cornerback Will Johnson and defensive lineman Mason Graham, among others. They’ve played a significant role in the Wolverines winning a second straight Big Ten championship and reaching the College Football Playoff where they’ll be the No. 2 seed against No. 3 TCU on Saturday. The winner advances to the national championship game.
“I think it’s really cool we’ve got a lot of guys playing as good as they are,” senior receiver and co-captain Ronnie Bell said. “It does feel different because last year was all the old guys making plays and doing crazy good things, and the old guys are still playing well, but for there to also be such young guys doing it is — coaches turned the whole program, that’s showing that as well to have young guys being able to do that.”
Edwards, despite an injury earlier in the season and, more recently, a right hand injury that requires him to wear a cast, has played a bigger role the last two games with a knee injury sidelining leading rusher Blake Corum. Against Ohio State in the final-regular season game and Big Ten championship game, Edwards rushed for a combined 401 yards and three touchdowns, including two lengthy fourth-quarter scores at OSU. He was named MVP of the Big Ten title game.
It doesn’t end there, though. Loveland started to see more playing time when Luke Schoonmaker was sidelined with injury. Gemon Green was out a few games, Johnson stepped in. And with more playing time comes more comfortability in games.
“Nobody’s flinched whenever they’ve gone in,” Bell said.
This has been a team that has talked so much this season about culture and being a brotherhood. Upperclassmen and underclassmen seem indistinguishable.
“We're not even looking at it like underclassmen or what age you are, nothing like that,” senior receiver Cornelius Johnson said. “Coach Harbaugh always stresses to us that the best players will play regardless of what class they're in, and to see that this year, it’s just a credit to our coaching staff, or whatever you want to look at, like recruiting, development, the strength staff developing those guys.
“So definitely this year, we've seen a lot of contributions from true freshmen, who have been able to step up and make crucial plays, because you never know when that number’s gonna be called. You could have not played the whole year and then all of a sudden you get thrown in there on like a fourth down, the game's on the line.”
McCarthy took over as starter this season beginning with Game 2, has shown his charisma and confidence this season, and that has carried over into his play. Will Johnson had a huge performance in the Big Ten title game with two interceptions. Both players are five-star recruits, with McCarthy playing a role as a freshman coming into games in certain packages as the backup quarterback, and now Johnson has slipped into is role.
By the second half of the season, Will Johnson said the game started to slow down for him. After facing Penn State on Oct. 15, Johnson said things began to click. He has started four of the last five games.
“When I started getting those starts and playing full games, it definitely helped me get more comfortable,” Johnson said. “The more playing time helped me just being in those atmospheres and being comfortable in those atmospheres helped me. At first, it was more just being comfortable just in those atmospheres and playing fast and not being worried about the crowd and all that and just locking in.”
Being locked in is how several of the underclassmen described the key to playing early. Graham, who shared team rookie of the year honors with Johnson, played defensive tackle in all 13 games and made two starts. Graham, lauded for his strength and also his footwork and leverage owing in part to his high school wrestling career, has 25 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a pass breakup.
Graham said he didn’t have any idea he’d play this much as a freshman.
“Coming into it, I was just hoping I could do whatever I can,” he said. “I didn't know who was staying, who was leaving, what was gonna happen, so I just came with a mindset of I gotta put in the work like everyone else, and the results will come.”
There is an added scrutiny to freshmen playing, and with that, they must get the playbook down and understand everything they need to do.
“When I first came here, I was always trying to lock into the playbook because in those early practices, I kind of like messed up a little bit on all the play calls,” Graham said. “But that's when I knew I had to lock in. Now I have the system down and I think I think I'm on a good path now.”
Loveland said the younger players meshed quickly with the older players because trust was established early. He said he has been respectful to them since he arrived and hopes he earned their trust early on.
“We see each other for hours a day, so you build that bond, and that connection translates to the field definitely,” Loveland said.
Kris Jenkins, a junior defensive lineman playing some of the best football of his career, said he is not surprised so many younger players have been integral to the team’s success this season.
“Being with them, working with them every day, you could kind of tell by their aura, by their level of intensity, that they're willing to — and that goes for all the freshmen, really — work and do whatever they have to do to perfect their craft,” Jenkins said. “Just seeing them produce and doing their thing, it's really exciting for us to see them go out and dominate.
“At their young age, they’re going to continue to develop and continue to get bigger, get stronger, get faster. That excitement that they're producing and balling out now, it really opens the question to what's their ceiling going to be, how good are they gonna continue to be? We're really excited and proud for all of them. They've been doing a great job.”
Just as the younger coaches positively infused the staff, the younger players have given this team new blood and a major spark.