Not many remnants of Brady Hoke’s disastrous 5-7 2014 season remain in Ann Arbor.
The coaching staff, athletic director, and entire starting roster are gone. In the four years since, Michigan has lost just nine regular-season games.
But in its locker room, one group remembers that season more vividly than they would like to. The Wolverines’ current crop of fifth-year seniors were freshmen that year, mostly redshirts, forced to watch from the sidelines as they lost to Utah, Minnesota, Rutgers, and Maryland.
On Saturday, those seniors — a structural part of Michigan’s makeover under coach Jim Harbaugh — will take the field at Michigan Stadium for the final time, with everything imaginable left to play for.
“You definitely know what the bottom feels like and you’re getting a taste of what the top feels like,” said fifth-year senior fullback Jared Wangler on Tuesday evening. “And you really just want to keep the momentum going and do something special that we’ve never done here.”
These seniors almost didn’t make it here. Last winter, they contemplated dispersing in their separate ways. Defensive end Chase Winovich could have been a Day 2 NFL Draft pick. Lower down the totem poll, role players like Wangler and defensive lineman Lawrence Marshall explored graduate transfer options that would have given them more playing time in their final collegiate seasons.
For Marshall, Winovich’s return was the turning point. That move coincided with redshirt junior quarterback Shea Patterson transferring to Michigan and paving the path for a special season.
“I’m like, ‘damn, we’re bringing the pieces together,’ ” Marshall said on Tuesday, reflecting on his decision. “ ‘I want to come back and see this, we can make something happen.’ “
Still, though, Marshall wasn’t assured in his decision until he talked to defensive line coach Greg Mattison. Mattison was faced with a similar decision in 1996, when he was the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator and got offered a job at Notre Dame.
12 months later, he watched from South Bend as Michigan was crowned national champions.
“He told me that story,” Marshall said, “and said ‘Lawrence, you don’t want to feel that way, leaving and Michigan winning the national championship and you left at the wrong time.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t wanna be that person.’ ”
In order to make the most of his final season, Marshall — along with the other fifth-year seniors — hatched a plan.
The plan would start in East Lansing, continue to Columbus, and then forge onward to the Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff. For all the talk of the Wolverines’ revenge tour, they have only completed one step of Marshall’s plan. More importantly, though, everything remains in front of them.
And when they take the field for the last time on Saturday, these seniors will remember all the obstacles that they have traversed over the past five years to get here.
Earlier this week, Marshall began to tell reporters that he doesn’t know what his reaction is going to be. Senior safety Tyree Kinnel overheard and called his bluff.
“He told me he’s gonna cry,” Kinnel shouted in the background.
“I might cry, you never know.”
Running back Joe Hewlett doesn’t yet know whether or not he will be reduced to tears. But after talking with former player and current graduate assistant Henry Poggi, he’s spent the last few weeks imagining touching the banner one last time.
Heeding Poggi’s advice, he plans to take a couple of moments on Saturday to look around and appreciate the scene at Michigan Stadium.
“It’s crazy that it’s gone so fast,” Hewlett said. “You know, everyone always says that. Five years really does go by quick. It really will be special playing out there one last time and hopefully going out on a high note.”
For this Michigan team, going out on a high note won’t be defined by their last time at the Big House. That will come the following weekend in Columbus.
As for whether returning for a fifth year was the right decision? Just ask Marshall.