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Inside the Michigan special teams ‘beehive’ with Jay Harbaugh

All Photos: Andy Shippy
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan needs to implement a PSI statistic. It’d be strictly for internal use — the production, not pounds-per-square-inch graph — and it would complement the helmet-sticker leader board. Both would be posted somewhere near a water cooler or milk dispenser in the team lounge.

The statistic wouldn’t measure player performance, though; it’d quantify contributions from the coaching staff. With that said, imagine the numbers that’d come from the special teams room. Chris Partridge, who also helps with linebackers; Mike Zordich, who also handles corners; and Jay Harbaugh, who also coaches tight ends — a three-man team designed to achieve the closest possible thing to perfection.

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Chris Partridge is one-third of the special teams conglomerate at Michigan. He likes to push creative boundaries. Photo: Andy Shippy

There’s a lot of idea-bouncing, brainstorming and careful analysis being done by those three. Maybe the most of any comparable group within the Wolverines program.

“It’s a conversation. It’s, ‘Hey, look at this clip — look at what they did… I was thinking we could do this,'” Harbaugh said of a typical meeting with his fellow coordinators. “Zordich might come in and say, ‘Hey, I saw that too — I have this idea.’ Then maybe Chris is like, ‘OK, what if we did this instead?’ It’s kind of a combination of all three things…”

Special teams have become somewhat of science at Michigan, really.

“There’s a good chemistry there with all three us working together,” Harbaugh said. “Maybe Chris has this insane idea that’s nuts, and I kind of talk him back a little bit and we get somewhere that’s a little more conventional. It’s a good balance and we work well together.

“It’s all about finding ways to put our players in position to make plays and do things they’re good at.”

For the record, all suggestions get considered for at least 10 to 15 seconds, a rule Jay learned from his uncle John, who coaches the Baltimore Ravens.

Two weeks ago, redshirt sophomore athlete Jabrill Peppers was put in great position against Colorado. The most ideal of positions, really — right where the ball was kicked at least three or four times. He made the other side pay on the final kick, though. His 54-yard punt-return touchdown in the early-fourth quarter all but signed, sealed and delivered Michigan’s come-from-behind 45-28 win over the visiting Buffaloes.

Punting and kicking have also been steady. However, this past weekend, the whole snap-hold-kick dynamic ran into a few snags during the Wolverines’ 49-10 win over Penn State, causing senior kicker/punter Kenny Allen to uncharacteristically miss a pair of field goals.

Part of it was on Allen, who was 3-for-3 before finishing the day at 4-for-6. Part of it was on protection. Part of it was on bad snaps and misaligned holds. Instead of being 12-and-6 across the board, some were stopped at 1-and-7 and 11-and-5. Snapper Scott Sypniewski, holder Garrett Moores and Allen usually run as one — this past Saturday certainly wasn’t the norm.

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Mike Zordich’s guidance helps things work for Michigan special teams. Photo: Andy Shippy

Fortunately for Michigan, special teams mistakes have yet to cost it a game. Conversely, with four relatively sound victories, the Wolverines haven’t been forced to use kickers and punters — or other means — to create an edge during a tight one.

However, such could be the case Saturday, as the No. 4-ranked Wolverines (4-0) host the No. 8-ranked Wisconsin Badgers (4-0) in a top-10 duel in Ann Arbor — the first of its kind for the two teams. Every play. Every snap. Every hold and every block.

All of it will matter.

“We’re just kind of into our first-third of preparation. Big practice today (Tuesday), and there’ll be a big emphasis put on it, as I’m sure it will be in the practice sessions on the U-W campus,” coach Jim Harbaugh said during Tuesday’s conference call. “It’ll be a big emphasis, as it always is. I think especially in this game, and I think that’s your point, special teams are going to play a huge factor in this ballgame.”

On-field execution. Easy. Either Michigan succeeds or fails. But there are more parts to the mix. Player actions don’t just happen all of the sudden — they’re the final result of meticulous research.

Meanwhile, what you see on Saturday had already been made, in part, on the prior Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

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Special teams are now a thing at Michigan. Some of that credit should go to John Baxter, says Jay Harbaugh. Photo: Andy Shippy

Facebook Live interview session with Jay Harbaugh

It’s a rapidly moving beat for Jay Harbaugh. Really busy.

But that’s how it all works. It’s a kinetic chain. Constant movement is required.

“It’s fun. But it’s not any different from anyone else on the staff,” Jay Harbaugh said of his daily grind. “I mean, everybody is busy, coaching their positions. Everyone helps out. Special teams is a group effort. There’s more than myself or just Coach Partridge involved — there’s Coach Zordich, obviously.

“Everybody is busy, and it’s just about doing your part of it — it’s good to be busy, and it’s good to be part in kind of ‘beehive’ atmosphere with everybody having something to do. It works well for us.”

One year ago, John Baxter re-energized special teams in Ann Arbor, instantly popularizing the “special teams efficiency” conversation. He had Michigan among the best in that area. But after the 2015 season, he accepted the same job at USC.

There may be new bees in the hive, but they’re making the same honey. As of this week, Michigan was ranked No. 2 in terms of special teams efficiency, per ESPN.

“There are certainly things that we do now, or took from him and tweaked,” Jay Harbaugh said. “I think that he’s part of where we are now, in terms of our special teams. He was a positive difference-maker for us — I think that was a process that started when we all got here last year.”

Of course, there are always better ways to protect, allowing for more time. More ideal ways to block, allowing for larger gains. The Wolverines have “left a couple of big returns” on the field this year — but other than that, everyone has met general expectations.

“I would say yeah, there are certain phases and areas within offense and special teams that we’re playing well in,” Jay Harbaugh said. “As is always the case, there is ‘OK, we need to tighten up this thing, this thing and this thing.’ When we play another good team, they’re going to try to expose us…”

Wisconsin is the type of team that can gnaw at a vulnerable area, making it necessary for the Wolverines to prepare for anything imagined by the Badgers — or by any team, for that matter.

“You’re always trying to tweak things and improve things,” he said. “Maybe play different guys, and find ways to turn something that’s good into great — or get it as close to perfect (as possible).”

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Inside the Michigan special teams ‘beehive’ with Jay Harbaugh

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