April 19, 2012

Borton's Blog: All smiles

The smile, the classic machine-gun-rhythm cackle, isn't ever gone for long. But it tended to disappear when Desmond Howard rolled into town in recent years.

That's not the case anymore. Howard, the U-M football icon and weekly national representative on ESPN's GameDay, never really hid his reservations about Rich Rodriguez as a fit in Ann Arbor. He's not offering an "I told you so" now, but the smile says it all.

Howard hit town for the spring game, and had some fun in the post-exhibition press conference. He tossed questions at U-M head coach Brady Hoke, at Denard Robinson, and in between player interviews, found himself on the receiving end of a barrage of inquiries.

At one point, Media Relations Director Dave Ablauf was dismissing players from their stations, scattered about the interview room. Seeing a crowd gathered around Howard, he dismissed the former Heisman winner as well, drawing a laugh.

It's different around The Big House again, clearly. Somebody asked Howard if it felt that way.

"An 11-win season, a Sugar Bowl victory … yeah, definitely," he offered.

Howard stopped there, and that was good. No need to look back. No need to beat a horse that is "startin' to turn," like Washington Bartholomew Hogwallop once observed during supper.

He was among those who believed, without equivocation, that "Michigan football" - the kind based on tough defense, mammoth linemen, running the football and pursuing a pro-style passing attack - would again rise and thrive. The pro-style hasn't fully arrived, and the linemen are still growing, but he's seen enough to believe.

No. 21 also admitted to surprise at the level of immediate success Hoke experienced at Michigan. If folks are honest, they were a little stunned too, Howard admonished.

"It surprised everybody," Howard said. "Who did it not surprise? I bet you it surprised Coach Hoke. It surprised everyone. But they bought into the system and they believed. That's what happens when you do that.

"They're feeling good, coming off an 11-win season. They've bought into the program so far. If they continue to buy into the program, even greater things are yet to come."

With spring over, the onus is on the players to get the job done in summer workouts, he added. Two aspects of the present situation should make that easier, in his mind.

One, they weren't starting all over again this spring.

"You see Denard [Robinson] and Devin [Gardner] and those guys, they look much more comfortable, in my opinion, in Al Borges' offensive system," Howard said. "That's what I notice on the surface."

Two, they've got a date in Dallas with Alabama, the defending national champion. If that doesn't make summer workouts a little more meaningful, nothing will.

"There's a great deal of anticipation," Howard said. "Any time you're on that national stage, and you're playing against the defending national champs, that's as big as it gets. It's going to be a neutral site venue. It's a tremendous opportunity for these young men."

He didn't say so, but it's obvious he believes they're be tremendously more ready for this sort of a match-up - not to mention the challenging schedule as a whole - than they would have been not so long ago. Again, he's not going there. He doesn't need to do so.

He's just smiling more these days, at the very mention of Michigan football.

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