The presence of Jim Harbaugh looms large over all of the proceedings. It's a spring scrimmage, and thus the coaches can stand on the field, close to the action. Harbaugh is the center of attention, wearing his Bo Schembechler-esque hat with the thin Block M logo, a superstar coach trying to quickly change Michigan's future while re-connecting it to decades of past success.
To do that, Harbaugh must help Michigan escape from its present, a situation that creates a strange combination of long-term optimism and short-term uneasiness, all of which was on full display on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. You can't talk about Michigan football without asking a question that feels almost impossible to answer: It's not if Harbaugh can turn things around; it's how quickly can he do it? When a prestigious program has been treading water for so long, it's hard not to be anxious in hoping that the process of change can be accelerated, especially when the enemy is currently ruling the world.
Last weekend gave us our first glimpse of the Harbaugh era, but let's make one thing clear from the beginning: The last thing that anybody should ever do is make sweeping conclusions about a team based on a spring scrimmage.
It's natural to want to. These scrimmages are our only real taste of college football until September, the closest thing to the real thing we can get in a seven-and-a-half-month offseason. But, again: scrimmage. Spring games are known for their vanilla game plans (with some trick plays thrown in for entertainment purposes) and unlikely heroes, the third-stringers who make a big play or two and get fans excited, only to be never heard from again. They are not known for allowing us to make accurate judgments about the season the following fall.
Still, there was an obvious dichotomy on display at Michigan's spring game last Saturday. About 60,000 fans filed into Michigan Stadium on a beautiful spring day for their first glimpse of the Harbaugh era, 45,000 more than last year. There is finally some excitement in Ann Arbor, with the painful offense of the Brady Hoke era gone, along with the overly corporate management of former athletic director Dave Brandon. Harbaugh has come home, giving fans a reason to believe in immediate change for the better, and that past glory can be recaptured.
On the field, though, came the present-day reality. Harbaugh can't snap his fingers and make the Michigan offense explosive. On the first play of the scrimmage -- an unusually competitive scrimmage, with drafts to pick teams and quarterbacks subjected to full contact -- Maize team running back De'Veon Smith burst through a hole on the left side for a 34-yard gain. For the offenses, it was a misleading start. The Blue team finished with 27 rushing attempts for 20 yards (0.7 per carry). Despite the long run by Smith, the Maize team finished with 22 attempts for 53 yards (2.4 per carry). In all, the two offenses averaged 3.2 yards per play. There were as many sacks (five) as third-down conversions and the Blue team -- which won 7-0 -- maintained possession for only 8:54 of the 40-minute game. The Maize team, mainly quarterbacked by true freshman Alex Malzone, held the ball for over three quarters of the game but failed to score. It is at this point that you remember that we're only a few months removed from a season in which Michigan ranked 111th in the nation in scoring,
In other words, 60,000 excited fans showed up at the Big House for a glimpse at the future, only to be reminded that swapping coaches doesn't immediately fix all of a program's current ills. After the boredom of the end of the Lloyd Carr era, the culture clash of the Rich Rodriguez era and the frustrating offensive cluelessness of the Brady Hoke era, there is no shortcut to success after a decade of mediocrity and searching for a successful identity, even if hiring Harbaugh was the closest possible thing to a shortcut.
Beyond Smith's opening run, the plays that stood out were a couple fades successfully thrown by quarterback Shane Morris -- the on-campus leader for the starting job, with Iowa transfer Jake Rudock yet to arrive -- to receiver Amara Darboh, including a 37-yarder to convert on third-and-28. He may have been attacking cornerback Dennis Norfleet, who's actually a 5-foot-7 wide receiver, but Morris still showcased timing and arm strength in making a very difficult throw multiple times with pinpoint accuracy. Other results were mixed: Receivers -- with Devin Funchess gone -- struggled to get separation and dropped passes. The offensive line struggled to protect and open holes. The defense, meanwhile, got pressure and also produced a big afternoon for redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers -- one of the nation's top recruits in 2014 -- who shined at his new position of safety in former Florida coordinator D.J. Durkin's defense.
The nature of an intrasquad scrimmage allows one to make any conclusion he or she desires. Maybe the offense is terrible beyond repair. Maybe the defense is just that dominant. Maybe it's a combination of both, the defense is ahead of the offense and two haphazardly thrown together "teams" played each other after just 14 practices under a new coaching staff, five months before the season begins, without a full roster (Rudock has yet to arrive and USC transfer Ty Isaac was mostly sidelined by an injury at running back, among other things). It all makes for a confusing scene at times: Touchdowns are followed with cheers and the fight song to celebrate, but the celebration is also in response to a failure by a team's own defense.
Really, what fans are hoping for is some big plays, limited mistakes, a sunny day, a result that does not feature a significant imbalance between offense and defense and an overall clean game with no injuries. It is not hoping for the actual statistics of Saturday's Michigan spring game, for reminders of past failures.
Overall Saturday was a successful day for Michigan, if only because there were no major injuries, the weather was perfect and fans got their first glimpse of Harbaugh in action. Otherwise, it reinforced perhaps the biggest question of the offseason beyond Ohio State's quarterback competition, which is how quickly Michigan can close the enormous gap with the national champion Buckeyes with Harbaugh in place.
We enter spring practice hoping for answers that rarely come, and that is particularly true when a new coaching era begins. It is even truer when that new coach is one of the most hyped and universally praised hires ever. For Michigan, the rest of the offseason is bound to be filled with nervous optimism. For as much of an obvious, sure-thing hire as Harbaugh was, his first Wolverines team is college football's greatest mystery.