Linebacker James Ross says Michigan has something to prove. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — Michigan hasn’t received much national love in the preseason publications and prognostications. The Wolverines are not to be found in the Top 25 polls, and generally speaking, expectations are not high for them in the newly divided Big Ten.
This is what happens after a 7-6 season, a dreary bowl loss and a second year of offensive line question marks. This is what happens when no one seems to really know if Michigan coach Brady Hoke can get all of the pieces working this fall, his fourth leading the Wolverines.
Michigan opens the season on Saturday against Appalachian State
But no one inside the program seems overly concerned with what anyone on the outside has to say about them.
“Honestly, it motivates us,” linebacker James Ross said. “It keeps us on edge knowing we have something to prove. A lot of guys don’t believe in us, but we believe in us.”
There are a lot of reasons the Wolverines believe in themselves. They have a fifth-year senior returning at quarterback, Devin Gardner, receiver Devin Funchess who creates mismatch problems for most defenses, a defense that has a lot of depth, not to mention freshman Jabrill Peppers, who also will be returning punts, and a strong punter — don’t underestimate the value of what an effective punter can do — in Will Hagerup.
Still, based on 2013, and the team’s decline in the second half of the season, it is understandable why expectations are limited.
Then again, some teams don’t mind operating under the radar.
“I don’t ever feel like an underdog or anything with the word ‘under’ in front of it,” Gardner said last month. “If we’re perceived as that, that’s perfectly fine. I would love for teams to come in and take us lightly and read all those clippings.
“We’re going to come in, we’re going to be confident, we’re going to play hard. If our best isn’t enough, so be it. But I feel we have the talent that our best will be enough a lot of times.”
The leadership comes from players throughout the team, but Gardner will be relied on as the key offensive leader. He showed a great deal of toughness last season, his first as the starting quarterback, while taking sack after sack and then playing on a badly injured left foot in the final quarter and a half of the Ohio State game.
Gardner has taken on more of a leadership role, according to running back Justice Hayes, who said the team has responded.
“He was the same person, he’s just more mature.” Hayes said. “I can’t put a finger on it, but you can tell he’s way more mature than he was in the past. He’s really developed as a leader. He’s a senior and as an offense and a team, we’re right behind him. We’re ready to move forward. Devin is a very talkative guy. I feel like as a team we’re buying into it more.”
“When Devin tells us to do something, we do it. As opposed to in the past, he would say things but I feel like we didn’t have the success to want to listen to him all the time. We’re buying in. We’re ready to roll. We’ve always listened to (Gardner), we’re just fired up. We haven’t had the success we’ve wanted. We’re ready, and we’re ready to bring the tradition back to Michigan.”
Hoke said he has seen improved leadership throughout Michigan’s camp, which concluded Saturday. Each class voted four teammates as leadership representatives, and that, he said, has been a positive.
“You can see it in the whole team and how they’ve treated each other and competed,” Hoke said.
The players, particularly the seniors, have said they’ve witnessed a bond among teammates they haven’t before experienced during their Michigan careers. That might be one of the reasons why they don’t mind how national football analysts are talking about them.
“We don’t really pay attention to what ESPN says or the top-25 rankings,” said safety Jarrod Wilson. “We are just trying to build a great team and we know by doing that, wins will come.”
Appalachian State at Michigan
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: BTN/WWJ 950
2013 records: Appalachian State 4-8; Michigan 7-6
Line: Michigan by 34½