The Wolverine

June/July 2017

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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8 THE WOLVERINE JUNE/JULY 2017 J im Harbaugh's Wolverines roamed about Rome, presenting a winged helmet to the Pope and paintball barrages to each other. They walked through ruins whis- pering of past greatness and future aspirations. Back home, a team from two de- cades ago met to share hugs, laughs, stories and a lifelong bond in Crisler Center. They didn't have to dream and hope. They could remember, smile and flash national champion- ship rings. The 1997 team knew about strug- gles and big dreams not initially panning out. After all, the fifth-year seniors on that squad endured four straight four-loss seasons and the national shaming of an "M Stands For Mediocre" shot by an opportu- nistic headline writer. They threw all of that off, and posted Michigan football's first un- defeated season in a half century. Walk among them, and it's like pe- rusing a Colosseum of sorts. The '97 team represents greatness, and the sort of execution, resilience and toughness it takes to come away from a season unscathed atop the mountain. It's where Harbaugh and his crew are headed, sooner or later. It's a steeper mountain these days, with a deeper Big Ten list of con- tenders, a conference championship game and playoffs awaiting the sur- vivor. No matter. Harbaugh remains relentless in his pursuit of a Sir Edmund Hillary-type summit, with Don Brown, Tim Drevno and others supplying Tenzing Norgay acumen. Many think this year's Wolverines must take a step back after flood- ing the NFL with talent off the 2016 roster. And it would be foolish to discount those personnel losses and assume an unimpeded ascent. That said, Harbaugh's program keeps pushing, keeps adding talent, keeps building a championship look to the roster. We're not contending the 2017 season, or even 2018, might be 1997 revisited. We are saying there are common elements of excellence, and soon enough, there will be breakthroughs beyond 2016's painful near miss at the end. Here are a few: • Talent Buildup — The '97 squad proved littered with eventual pros. From Woodson, the Heisman winner, to Brian Griese, the pre- ferred walk-on quarterback turned leader, to dozens of others, the Wolverines put players on the field whose careers didn't end with their final shot at Ohio State or in a bowl game. That's happening again. Michigan hadn't seen more than three play- ers taken in the NFL Draft since 2008, when Jake Long, Chad Henne, Shawn Crable, Mario Manningham and more moved on to play profes- sionally. This year, the Wolverines saw a program-record 11 players drafted, including first-rounders Jabrill Peppers and Taco Charlton. Credit former head coach Brady Hoke for bringing in those two, but Har- baugh and his staff for developing them and piling on the talent behind them. Harbaugh's first two full recruit- ing classes shook out top five na- tionally in Rivals.com's rankings, and there's no letup there, right to the most-recent commitment of four-star dual-threat quarterback Joe Milton. • Top-Level Youth — In part because of its recruiting, Michigan doesn't have to wait four or five years for big contributions. The '97 Wolverines played a pair of redshirt freshmen (Steve Hutchinson and Jeff Backus) on the offensive line, and Drevno is replicating that youth movement. Angeligue Chengelis of The Detroit News has seen many Wolverines come and go, and she's sensing a bit of a flashback. "I'm hesitant to say it's going to be great right away, but the talent is like you and I recall seeing before," she noted of a rebuilt offensive line. "The quality is there. Now it's about developing them." It's the same on the defensive side. The '97 crew featured sopho- more safety Tommy Hendricks, making a diving interception in the end zone to save the Notre Dame game, and a host of other huge first- and second-year contributors. These Wolverines showcase soph- omore defensive end Rashan Gary and many others, ready to not only play, but also teach. "He was pulling the young guys aside, even some of the older guys, and pointing out things," Chengelis noted of Gary in Rome. "He does it in such a gentle way. It's amazing how much of a leadership role he's taken on already as a young guy." • Coaching — Lloyd Carr earned National Coach of the Year honors in '97, with a defensive coordinator in Jim Herrmann who unleashed relentless blitzing punishment. Har- baugh is clearly one of the best in the business, and loves unleashing Brown, his own blitz-loving coordi- nator. None of that guarantees a single victory in 2017. But it's a path that certainly doesn't lead to ruin. ❏ Editor John Borton has been with The Wolverine since 1991. Contact him at jborton@thewolverine.com and follow him on Twitter @JB _ Wolverine. WOLVERINE WATCH   JOHN BORTON Bridging The Gap From 1997 To 2017 Sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary, who offers both talent and leadership, is among the reasons to be optimistic about the 2017 Wolverines. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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