ANN ARBOR, Mich. — As coach Jim Harbaugh discussed the youth on his Michigan football roster, he displayed some vulnerability in the wake of the No. 8 Wolverines’ 33-14 win against Cincinnati.
“I think about it a lot,” Harbaugh said Saturday, when asked if he’s considered how young his team is. “And what you’re asking somebody to do and putting them in a position when they’re confident and really understand it, that’s the ideal position. There’s a lot of it right now. There’ s a lot of ‘who’s really got this?’ You don’t know for sure.
“You don’t know, but you remember. It’s hard to execute. It’s hard to play with a lot of emotion. You’re better off being dead to them. But you think about it, you try to anticipate, you try to resolve where you can.”
The older players have been there, and they notice it, too. And they know what the younger players are going through. It’s a trial by fire.
“There’s certain guys who don’t have as many game reps or who haven’t played college football as long,” Michigan running back Ty Isaac said. “That’s not to say that you’re not a good player or you’re unprepared. But if I’ve never done something before, you can’t yell at me like I’ve been doing it for two or three years.”
Michigan’s youngsters did a few good things and a few not-so-good things. They gave Harbaugh more to contemplate following the Wolverines’ win Saturday.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, a freshman, struggled with punt returns. He nearly fumbled his first return, then improperly fielded a second-quarter punt that bounced off teammate Benjamin St-Juste. Cincinnati recovered the loose ball and a pass interference call on sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill helped set up Cincinnati’s first touchdown.
Nolan Ulizio, a sophomore making his second start at right tackle, was called for unsportsmanlike conduct about 6 minutes into the third quarter
And even Rashan Gary — a defensive end whom many regard as the face of the Wolverines this year — struggled with discipline. Officials called the sophomore for a personal foul 45 seconds into the fourth quarter for his hit on Cincinnati quarterback Hayden Moore, and eventually ruled that the hit wasn’t targeting. (Gary responded with a roar, by pressuring Moore two plays after the penalty.)
In the wake of Michigan’s win on Saturday, the lack of discipline, or even simple in-game smarts, begs a question: Does Michigan have a youth problem?
If so, Michigan needs its youngsters to grow up, sooner rather than later.
“Experience has taught me that they’ve got to go do it,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve got to go do it and keep moving forward and gaining experience. I know what these guys are made up and they’re going to get it. I feel very confident about that.”
In the meantime, Michigan did some in-game tinkering. In particular, Michigan turned to Grant Perry to take on the punt return responsibilities.
“It just felt like the decision to not catch the ball was coming too late, and allowing too many of our guys to get around the ball,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to have to keep coaching that up. Guys doing it the first time, there’s a point where you have to come off blocking your man as you get closer to the return. At 10 yards distance away, and you’ve got to find the returner, and it’s not easy to do. Trying to block a man, trying to find the return, having that awareness.
“There’s experience that needs to take place there, and it felt like I wanted to go with a guy who had a little more time and a little more experience.”
In addition to learning how to play football at the college level, Michigan’s youngsters, particularly its freshman, are learning how to be college students as much as they are college football players. Not every college student has to play in front of more than 111,000 spectators six times a year.
Their struggles on Saturday made that obvious. Their successes also helped.
“We grew in experience,” Harbaugh said. “There’s a lot of things for each individual player to think about, in a number of ways of playing a football game. There’s things that you can’t experience until you experience them. There’s a lot. There’s handling your emotions, handling a week for school for the first time. Being in that environment, that atmosphere, there’s nerves, there’s butterflies, and you get experience on how to handle it. At some point.”
While he has to negotiate what his youngsters are going through, he won’t stress out because of it. Harbaugh has been there.
“I’m 53,” Harbaugh said. “It’s gone dead. I’m dead in here. Burnt wood. Experiences, butterflies and emotions that way. But guys that are doing it for the first time or the second time, even? They gained some experience. We got some more of that today, and that’s a good thing.”