ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Don’t ask how the coaches can ease the waters for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. Ask how those coaches — and their personalities and influence — can benefit the Wolverines program as a whole.
When it comes to diving into staff-related questions, it’s all about context with Harbaugh, who gave a healthy reminder of that during this week’s Big Ten coaches conference call.
“I know you’ve asked me about other particular coaches,” said Harbaugh, citing previous Biff Poggi-related inquiries that didn’t fly over so well. “It’s a good question if you ask… and you framed it before, like you know, ‘What have they done? How do they help me?’ Or how do they help my job?’
And really, the way you just framed it — ‘How do they help the program?’ — that is the… that’s the… that’s the one… that’s the way our that assistant coaches are, (and the) men here affect the program, and those that they’ve coached, in a huge way.”
Never one to take personal credit. No public pats on the back. No self-applause. Includes his peers.
Go ahead and ask him about the role and impact of a couple of his assistants. Just be prepared to hear him mention every single one by name. As he’s said before, “there are no little people” within the program — that’s because the Harbaugh kinetic chain requires several functional and capable components.
“Outstanding technical ability,” Harbaugh said of his all-star staff of defensive line coach Greg Mattison, linebackers coach Chris Partridge, safeties coach Brian Smith, corners coach Mike Zordich, defensive coordinator Don Brown, tight ends/special teams coach Jay Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch, and running backs/fullbacks coach Tyrone Wheatley.
Harbaugh even quickly mentioned Biff Poggi, a non-official member of the staff who serves as a special consultant. Shockingly, he didn’t mention the equipment manager, Sonny Anderson, or the graphics pro, Aaron Bills.
He probably thought of them, though. And really, he’s likely already acknowledged Anderson and Bills in some shape or form, whether publicly or in-house.
No little people.
With that said, each one those assistants has done something to impress a Wolverines player — and, in several cases, Harbaugh.
Whether by way of conversation or demonstration, Brown’s Nor’Easter-ness has covered the defense within a matter of months. He calls his players “dudes” and talks rough. Fisch’s offensive philosophies and approach have blanketed the offense during the past year-and-a-half. Drevno has built an O-line in a short amount of time.
Smith, a first-year guy, and Zordich, a second-year assistant, needed just months to connect with one of the best secondaries in the nation.
This past Saturday, the Wolverines special teams altered four kicks and punts — a brash attack that grew roots in 2015 under former assistant John Baxter, and one that continues to gain weight in 2016.
Michigan has the ability to stretch the field with quarterback Wilton Speight, provide protection for said action, and prevent other teams from running up the score. The Wolverines have enough to hurt the opposition in all facets through four quarters — and they have upward of six or seven potential All-Big Ten/All-Somethings on their roster.
First-round NFL draft picks in the making.
All of this has been done by design, and the coaches’ fingerprints can be found plastered all over the results. Moving pieces that nudge other moving pieces that do the same to the next guy…
Get all of that? A pretty simple mode of operation, one that has leadership from the apex to the base.
This how it all works.
Check the Influences
Harbaugh enjoys power football. Power football requires the use of tight ends. Harbaugh brought the right guy for he job: Jay Harbaugh, who has molded what many consider to be one of the deepest tight end groups in the country.
Throw in All-American senior captain Jake Butt, who has been tabbed as one of the best in college football, and up-and-comer Ian Bunting — and that’s a stacked group.
In the name of preparation, true freshmen Nick Eubanks, Sean McKeon and Devin Asiasi have also reps during the first two games.
Blocking has been handled with Tyrone Wheatley Jr., a converted two-way player, and Zach Gentry, a one-time quarterback.
Well-rounded and ideally sculpted.
With that said, Jay Harbaugh hasn’t wasted any time, a practice consistent with the rest of the staff. Unproductive moments don’t exist when players meet with coaches. For that reason, most in Ann Arbor believe that they have an elite band of tight ends.
Tie that back to Jay.
“He’s got a great personality, and he’s a genius, a football genius — and you know where that comes from,” Bunting said. “We just — I was talking about this with Jake (Butt) — we try to learn as much as we can from him.
“Just like, every day in meetings — whether we’re in full-offense meeting or breaking into individual (groups) — and we’re just with him, we get to learn from him. He’ll diagnose a whole defense and teach us kind of how to do that and teach us to better our craft.”
Since arriving at Michigan three years ago, Bunting’s football knowledge and performance has spiked — and it’s shown on the field. The past year-and-a-half has been particularly beneficial.
“Since he’s gotten here, I’ve been able to understand the game of football a lot better — and that’s partially due to him,” Bunting said of Jay, a 27-year-old who had held jobs with the Baltimore Ravens and Oregon State before migrating to Ann Arbor with his father.
One year ago, Kyle Kalis, the starting right guard, praised Drevno’s ability to simplify the complex. This year, the story remains the same, Kalis said during a Facebook Live session Tuesday night at Schembechler Hall. Now a fifth-year senior, he continues to credit Drevno for getting the most out of players — including himself.
Learning never ends, and the Wolverines get a consistent dose of new technique from Drevno.
Drevno has boosted the trenches, which in turn helps the fullbacks and running backs. That continuity seeps through each sector. Every assistant has something to give, which tops redshirt junior Henry Poggi’s list of wants.
“All of those guys are really enthusiastic,” Poggi said. “You know, they love what they do and they’re the best at what they do. Playing for coach Wheat (Wheatley) is just like… I love it. It’s one of the best things.
“He’s a great guy and he really cares about us. I think that’s the biggest thing — you can tell that the coaches really care about you. When the coaches care about you, you want to play better for them.”
A personable type, Fisch has all but opened the doors of an aerial world for his receivers and quarterbacks. Look at the numbers. Seven passing touchdowns through the first two games, tied for a Michigan record — and done by a first-year starter.
“He’s really helped the way I view the game as a whole,” Speight said in April. “I’ve always been serious about football, but Fisch has taken me to a whole new level. He coaches and teaches harder than anyone I’ve been around, but knows how to be fun with it.
“It never gets boring with him. Which keeps us all very engaged. He’s really helped me in being able to relax on the field because I understand so much more now.”
Talk of Brown’s stamp on Michigan has been heavy throughout the first three weeks of the season. And really, that talk started during the summer, when the former Boston College DC was hired by Harbaugh. In 2015, Brown had he No. 1-ranked total defense in the land.
One year ago, Michigan had another defensive guru, D.J. Durkin, who constructed the No. 4-ranked total defense. Maryland came calling for Durkin, so Harbaugh snagged Brown. Fair trade so far.
“They’ve definitely shaped us,” said fifth-year defensive lineman Matt Godin, who “loves” hard-nosed coaching. “They’re both very vocal guys (Durkin and Brown), and Durkin probably was a little more vocal. Both very passionate.”
On any given day, Harbaugh will refer to an assistant as a “rock of stability” or as a man with “high moral conviction” who’s “all about player development.” Those phrases have become universally interchangeable in Ann Arbor.
“Gifted coaches and teachers” has also been used at least once.
“I’m really blessed to have tremendous coaches and teachers, and I really underline/highlight that word ‘teacher,'” Harbaugh said. “You can talk about Xs and Os all you want, but really, when you’re on a team, it’s about trust and relationships — and I couldn’t be prouder of the coaching staff that we have here at Michigan.”
— Sports in the Mitten (@SITMBigAndKid) September 14, 2016