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Amazon documentary peels back the curtain on Michigan football

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A new Amazon documentary follows Michigan football from the highs of the team's opening win vs. Florida to the end of an 8-5 season.

BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

ANN ARBOR — The 2017 Michigan football season is not a collection of 13 games that will be recalled with enthusiasm decades from now.

There were no marquee moments — the Wolverines lost to Ohio State and Michigan State — and the 8-5 record, which included three consecutive losses to end the season, didn’t exactly leave those wearing maize and blue feeling warm and fuzzy.

But in All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines, an expansive eight-part, five-hour and 35-minute documentary chronicling the season, the essence of college athletics is captured — highs, lows, and real life all intertwined.

“People don't really look at us as kids,” junior offensive lineman Jon Runyan, Jr., said this spring. “It'll probably humanize us a little bit more, not just players on the field that fans love to scream at when we mess up. We’re growing and developing into young men.”

A victory against Florida in the season opener represented the high water mark for Michigan, but each win brought celebrations. The losses were detailed by learning moments, and injuries to Wilton Speight, Tarik Black, and Brandon Peters highlighted the fragile nature of football.

Perhaps most important was Karan Higdon’s relationship with his 3-year-old daughter and Rashan Gary’s emotional dinner conversation with his mother regarding his father, illustrating that these are not just college kids putting on a show for 100,000 fans each week. They’re human beings who have the same life experiences as all of us.

“If you don’t show interest in that you want to talk to me, then why should I care?” Gary says, tears rolling down his cheeks while talking to his mother about the frayed relationship with his father. “You, in my mind, passed his position, and nothing’s going to change that.”

The University of Michigan had total editing control over the project, which was produced by The Montag Group and distributed by Amazon, allowing for snippets of public relations spin. But a bulk of the footage is brutal honesty.

Viewers see in great detail the challenges Jim Harbaugh faced with a slew of quarterback injuries and underwhelming play. They witness Tim Drevno and Pep Hamilton struggle to turn the offensive line and offense as a whole into a cohesive unit. Of course, Don Brown plays a starring role with his trademark intensity, which rubs off on a defense that plays with vigor.

“They got nothin’, and we don’t have any turnovers!” Brown said, or screamed, during a halftime speech against Florida. “Let’s go take this [freaking] thing into our own hands! We don’t need any help! It’s right there! When you have a chance, get the [freaking] ball out!”

The documentary also captures the personalities of coaches and players. From springtime at the Vatican to a dreary New Year’s Day in Tampa, the series peels back the curtain and allows outsiders a sneak peek inside the program, offering up compelling images and soundbites.

“Hey, I believe in you guys. Let's go win this game,” quarterback John O’Korn says in the huddle as Michigan trails Ohio State 24-20 late in the fourth quarter.

When O’Korn throws a game-clinching interception, Hamilton, in the coaches booth, is heard saying, “No, John! No, John! No!”

During the month of August, Harbaugh repeatedly told reporters a decision about the quarterback position had not been made. It felt disingenuous at the time. After all, Speight was a returning starter who guided UM to 10 wins the previous season. But the early episodes are proof Harbaugh, Drevno, and Hamilton were indeed grappling with the decision.

Speight, meanwhile, appears as someone who cannot shake criticism from the media. Multiple scenes show the quarterback, who announced his transfer to UCLA last week, complaining about the perception of himself and the offense as it stumbled to reach the end zone in September.

A mystery during the season was who’s the play caller? If you’re to believe the Amazon footage, Hamilton had a firm grip on the offense, with Drevno supplying counsel.

Drevno is now gone, as are the cameras. Michigan will play 2018 without Amazon’s bright lights, but the team still will be under the microscope — no one more so than Harbaugh thanks to a mundane offense resulting in too few wins.

“We gotta get ‘em coached up,” Harbaugh says in his Schembechler Hall office. “That’s our job to do.”

Contact Kyle Rowland at: krowland@theblade.com, 419-724-6110, or on Twitter @KyleRowland.

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