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Extended offseason helped Wolverines become a calm, cool, collected bunch

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Minnesota blocked a Michigan punt early in the season opener this past weekend and quickly scored the game’s first points.

But there was no panic on the Michigan sideline. The Wolverines, opening the abbreviated season on the road in primetime, said they didn’t flinch.

The offense, under the direction of first-time starting quarterback Joe Milton, quickly responded with a 70-yard touchdown run from Zach Charbonnet. Michigan won, 49-24, and is now preparing to host Michigan State at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.

For a moment, it felt like the early stages of Michigan's disaster at Wisconsin last season to open Big Ten play. The Badgers led, 7-0, and the Wolverines were about to score on their first drive when they fumbled close to the goal line. They never seemed settled and never recovered after that moment.

Capt. Tom Chaby, a retired Navy SEAL, worked with the Wolverines this offseason and helped them change their mindset.

The Michigan players say this is a different team, not because of the obvious changes to the roster that come each year, but in terms of approach and togetherness. They were calm and methodical after the blocked punt and throughout the game at Minnesota.

Junior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, one of seven captains this season, said during the long offseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team was broken up into several groups, each led by a player. There has been an emphasis on the players leading rather than just the coaches.

“All that development in the offseason has really helped us to stay poised in those moments of adversity on the field,” Hutchinson said. “When they scored that first touchdown and they blocked the kick, we all sat down on the sideline, no one was stressing, there was no one getting worried. You can see it and you can feel it that we knew we were just fine. We knew it was the first quarter, there was so much time left and just that poise, personally, I could feel it in our defense. That’s one of the biggest differences with this team from previous teams.”

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Sophomore receiver Mike Sainristil was explaining why this team feels more united when he shared a text message from teammate Jalen Mayfield as an example. Mayfield had decided to opt out and begin training for the NFL Draft when the Big Ten postponed the season on Aug. 11. When the season was reinstated last month, Mayfield decided to return and is starting for the second season at right tackle.

“We want to work together,” Sainristil said. “Like Jalen Mayfield, for instance. He had every opportunity to leave. He came back, the first thing he texted was, ‘I came back to do this for us. I want to continue fighting for you guys. And I’m not leaving here until we win a championship.’ Examples like that is what helps that family, that team bond.”

The players often credit Capt. Tom Chaby, a retired Navy SEAL, who has worked with the program for about a year. Chaby, after his 26-year military career, has been a mentor to the players and has helped them change their mindset approaching big games while also understanding the concept of team. Hutchinson said Chaby met with the individual player-led groups often during quarantine.

“We all learned so much from him,” Hutchinson said.

Sainristil is in only his second season with the Wolverines, but he said there’s a change in the overall mindset from last year. He credited Chaby for that alteration.

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"(For) helping everyone realize you’ll never be able to go out on a football field and be an individual,” Sainristil said of Chaby’s advice. “It’s always going to have to come as one. Football is a team sport and if you’re not willing to go out there and put it all on the line for the person next you, you don’t deserve to be out there.”

The lengthy time off from playing games also helped galvanize this team, which never paused its workouts or practices even after the season was originally suspended.

“I’d say the corona period had allowed us to continue building trust in each other,” Sainristil said. “Like Joe (Milton) had mentioned, he said he was able to gain a lot of trust in the O-line, and you can just see that the way he’s comfortable back there. That’s not something that just happens overnight. That comes over a period of time and that off time we had, the time when we weren’t playing any games, is when I really feel like we were able to continue building that trust and forming that bond.”

Although he’s only been in the program two years, sophomore defensive lineman Chris Hinton also detects a change.

“The difference between this year and last year, it’s crazy,” Hinton said. “The vibe on this team is very focused, very determined, offense, defense, special teams. We’re a team. We’re all one this year. Everyone’s bought in. I’m excited about this team. I’ve been excited about this year. Great teammates, great coaches, great guys. It’s going to be exciting to see what we do the rest of this season.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis