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Jim Harbaugh's Challenge

After sending a record number of players to the NFL, the hyperkinetic coach rebuilds under pressure.

by Craig Ross

From the September, 2017 issue

April's NFL draft tapped eleven Wolverines, the most in the program's history. Seven others signed pro contracts as free agents. Credit Jim Harbaugh, who brought the program back after seven lost years under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. Credit Hoke, too, who recruited them, and the players themselves--all but one graduated, or will soon, while playing pro-quality ball.

But the departures mean that the Wolverines will enter the 2017 season with the least experienced team in major college football: the U-M ranks 128th out of 128 schools in returning starters. Rubbing salt in the wounds, Harbaugh also lost one of his own recruits, rising superstar tight end Devin Asiasi, who followed U-M passing coordinator Jedd Fisch to UCLA. That leaves Harbaugh, a coach known for use of tight ends, without a proven blocker at the position.

He'll get no respite for rebuilding: with fewer meatballs and more top rivals on the road, it promises to be his toughest season yet at Michigan.

---

Harbaugh has beaten the odds before. Recall the landscape that awaited him when he arrived in 2015.

During Lloyd Carr's tenure (1995-2007), two events reshaped college football. First, the number of scholarships schools could give out was capped at eighty-five; powerhouse schools had been awarding as many as 125. That flattened the grade of the playing field. Michigan (and OSU, Alabama, and Notre Dame) could no longer hold onto forty spare players, who ended up elsewhere. With less depth, recruiting mistakes were magnified. You miss on a couple of key guys? The cupboard might be bare at some positions.

Back in the 1980s, then-athletic director Don Canham told the Observer that hiring winning coaches wasn't that hard--many capable ones at smaller schools could compete nationally given access to Michigan's talent and resources. Bo Schembechler, whom Canham plucked from Miami of Ohio, was Exhibit A.

But distributing playing talent more evenly made coaching more critical. Competence, and signing the best possible student athletes, was no longer

...continued below...


enough--especially once coaches at have-not schools further leveled the playing field by going abstract expressionist. They spread the field on offense and incorporated read options, where the quarterback just threw the ball--or ran--wherever the defense wasn't. Appalachian State used this avant-garde strategy to upset the Wolverines in the 2007 opener.

When Carr retired at the end of that season, AD Bill Martin went new wave with Rodriguez, whose spread offense had made West Virginia a national power. I was one of many who thought it was a great choice. Even Carr had high hopes; he told me that Rodriguez "would win a lot of games at Michigan."

Rich Rod's offenses rolled up epic numbers--in 2010, they beat Illinois 67-65 in triple overtime--but his defenses gave up even more. Michigan went 15-22 during his tenure and 6-18 in the Big Ten--its worst three-year run in more than seventy years.

After three seasons, Rodriguez was fired. Declaring "all that glitters isn't gold," AD Dave Brandon hired former assistant Brady Hoke. Many took the not-gold reference as a shot at the fans' dream coach--Harbaugh, then tearing it up with Stanford and later the 49ers in the NFL.

Hoke inherited quality players, most notably Denard Robinson, one of the best quarterbacks ever to operate a spread-to-run offense. But Hoke's instincts kept drawing him back to power and isolation plays, and his offense never seemed to know what it wanted to be. Like Howdy Doody's Flub-a-Dub, it was a beast of no description, and not a very elegant one at that. After Brandon resigned under pressure in 2014, interim AD Jim Hackett fired Hoke and hired Harbaugh.

A former quarterback under Schembechler and in the pros, Harbaugh was not about to change his theories. After seven years of spread and then "who knows" offenses, he brought back a smashmouth running game and pro-style passing. Behind transfer quarterback Jack Ruddock, he made it work. The Wolverines went 9-3 in Harbaugh's first season, then capped it by winning the Sugar Bowl.

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Last year, I wrote that it "wasn't crazy to speculate that Michigan could be a national force." Well, they were, but I thought recent transfer John O'Korn would be at the helm of the offense. Instead, former backup Wilton Speight won the job--a surprising choice after his wobbly performance in the 2015 Minnesota game.

But once again, Harbaugh made it work. With Speight playing someplace between "pretty good" and "the reincarnation of Roman Gabriel," the Wolverines ran out to a 9-0 record, heading into a night game at Iowa City. Iowa was 5-4 and had just been pounded by Penn State, a team U-M had steamrollered. Up 10-0 in the second quarter, it looked like Michigan would cruise into Columbus undefeated.

Then it all unraveled. Iowa crowded the line of scrimmage, gambling that Speight could not complete deep passes. It paid off. Five times Wolverine wide receivers ran free in the secondary. Five times the ball was poorly thrown. Iowa couldn't move the ball but won 14-13, with the referee, Michigan nemesis John O'Neill (MSU in 2015), overturning a touchdown on replay.

Michigan straggled into Columbus at 10-1 (same as OSU) after a shaky win in overtime over Indiana (Speight was injured and didn't play). Another win would put them into a Big Ten Title game against Wisconsin, a team they had already beaten. A win against the Badgers, in turn, would have put U-M into the NCAA's four-team playoff.

The Wolverines dominated for most of the game. Late in the third quarter, they were ahead 17-7. But then Speight threw an interception--his second--and OSU returned the ball to the U-M 12. Two Michigan penalties later, it was 17-14 at the end of three.

The OSU offense, inert for most of the day, put together a drive late in the fourth quarter to tie matters. Both teams scored a touchdown in the first overtime session. In the second OT Michigan was held to a field goal, a drive stopped by a missed pass interference call on OSU. Facing a fourth and one on its drive, coach Urban Meyer (kudos) decided to go for it; a touchdown sealed the Buckeyes' double-OT win.

The Orange Bowl matched Florida State's strength, its D-Line, against the U-M's weakness, its offensive line. Worse, the Wolverines' two primary playmakers were on the sidelines--Jabrill Peppers pulled a hamstring in practice and Jake Butt tore his ACL early in the game.

At the half, FSU was ahead 20-6 and seemed easily in control. But in the third quarter the U-M defense adjusted and FSU gained exactly zero yards. The sputtering U-M offense put up a field goal, and the defense added six with an interception. Then, in the fourth quarter, the U-M's Rip Van Winkle offense awoke, putting up two touchdowns and a two-point conversion. Incredibly, Michigan led, 30-27.

FSU received the kickoff with a bit over two minutes to go. The U-M kick return team, solid all year, seemed confused when the receiver hesitated, then returned the ball deep into U-M territory. Then, on third and ten, FSU accomplished something that hadn't happened to Michigan all year, lofting a TD pass over the top of All-Big-Ten corner Jourdan Lewis.

Michigan blocked the extra point and ran it the length of the field, closing the gap to 33-32. But that was it.

In the end, Michigan lost two one-point games and tied another before losing in double OT. Given where Michigan football had been, Harbaugh's 20-6 record in his first two years is remarkable. Frustrating as the losses were, in his first two seasons, Michigan has been clearly outplayed only once (OSU, 2015).

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The off-season has been Groundhog Day--once again, the NCAA took direct aim at Harbaugh's work ethic and PR flair, this time limiting satellite camps and proscribing teams from going off campus for spring break.

And Harbaugh once again found a way to up the ante. Michigan finishes school early, and there was no rule against taking a team abroad once school had ended. An (anonymous) donor footed the bill for a trip to Rome. The U-M team (and the coaches) played gladiator games at the Colosseum, met Middle Eastern refugees, competed in paintball, and ate a lot of pizza. In between, Harbaugh met with the Pope and gave him a U-M helmet and a pair of maize-and-blue Jordans (size 9, for those into such things).

"Intentional or not, Michigan managed to once again head into summer in control of college football headlines and distill a powerful recruiting pitch into a single weekend," ESPN's Dan Murphy wrote. "Hey, kid, want to play in the NFL? And how about a couple international vacations on us in the meantime?"

Despite the departures, defensive coordinator Don Brown is upbeat. A healthy Brian Mone has more upside than the departed Ryan Glasgow at nose tackle. On the left side, Rashan Gary and Mo Hurst are locks to be first-round NFL picks. Weak-side end Chase Winovich is a quality pass rusher and should hold up in the run game. Michigan has three excellent inside linebackers--Devin Bush, Mike McCray, and Mike Wroblewski.

Peppers leaves a hole, but more on offense and returns than defense. Soph Khaleke Hudson has shown in the spring that he can play the "Viper" position, a hybrid defensive back and outside linebacker. Against jumbo teams (Wisconsin, mainly) and teams that like to "smashmouth" out of huddles some of the time (MSU), strong-side outside linebacker Noah Furbush is a fine alternative.

The questions are in the secondary and depth on the defensive line. U-M has two quality recruits, Aubrey Solomon and James Hudson, but, yeah, true freshmen. The coaches have talked up soph Michael Dwumfour, but he was injured most of the spring. There are good young players at the weak-side defensive end (watch frosh Donovan Jeter), but the strong side is uncertain, though frosh Carlo Kemp has received positive reviews.

Michigan is thin at safety, but junior Tyree Kinnel has some experience and soph Josh Metellus showed he could hit in special teams last year. There shouldn't be much decline. Depth? It will have to be frosh or perhaps another Glasgow (Jordan) who will back up at safety and Viper.

Corner is the key. The good news is that Keith Washington broke out in the spring, and the junior will compete with two highly recruited sophomores, David Long and Lavert Hill. Ambry Thomas, a freshman, competed well in the spring. Ben St-Juste, another frosh, and Brandon Watson are in the mix. Wide receiver Drake Harris moved to corner in the fall, to positive reviews from Don Brown. The corners will be better than most of the Big Ten, if not quite the NFL tandem the Wolverines had last year.

Assuming the defense stays healthy, this could be another vintage Michigan squad.

The offense? Both of last year's wide receivers (Darboh, Chesson) were drafted, but slot Grant Perry has been reinstated after pleading guilty to assault and resisting a police officer in an altercation last fall. Soph Kekoa Crawford had a promising frosh season, and true frosh Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones are stars on the horizon. So, too, Oliver Martin and Nico Collins, who get their first practice reps this fall. Moe Ways, Eddie McDoom, Nate Johnson, and breakout walk-on Nate Schoenle provide enough quality to piece together a good receiving corps.

Tight end is an enigma. Tyrone Wheatley Jr., a fine athlete and pass catcher, has yet to prove he can block as well as Harbaugh would like. Michigan's other tight ends, Chris Gentry (a 6'7" converted QB), Nick Eubanks, and Ian Bunting (another 6'7" tower) have all shown they can catch and run. Some have Bunting as a front-runner (with Wheatley) for snaps in an offense that has used a lot of tight ends. Sean McKeon, a lightly recruited redshirt frosh, has been the subject of some positive whisperings.

---

The big question, again (alas), is the offensive line. Mason Cole moves back to left tackle after a year at center. That works. Ben Bredeson stays at left guard and should be solid. But the right side of the line is an enigma. Longtime backup Pat Kugler gets his chance at center. It looks like soph Mike Onwenu will start at right guard, and Jon Runyan Jr. is leading at right tackle, though Juwann Bushell-Beatty has a legit shot at the position, and frosh Cesar Ruiz could win a job at center or right guard.

With Tyrone Wheatley Sr. taking an NFL job, and Fisch heading to UCLA, Michigan hired Greg Frey to work on the offensive line, and Pep Hamilton (from Stanford with Harbaugh, then with the NFL Browns) to work on the passing game. Frey, who coached at U-M for three years with Rich Rod and then at Indiana's play-a-second teams, was a curious choice in one respect--he has always been a spread-and-zone guy, though he told me a few years ago he was comfortable teaching most any scheme. Still, the hire could be a tea leaf that U-M is toying with some spread. Speight was in shotgun for most of his snaps during the spring game, and some of these formations were "empty," with no running back.

Might U-M run a Tom Brady-esque spread-to-pass offense this year? Certainly Frey and Hamilton would be familiar with morphing formations and "dink and dunk" masquerading as a run game. Running backs Chris Evans and Karan Higdon can flash their abilities more in space than in an offense that struggles to move defenders. Moreover, fullback Khalid Hill has shown he can catch the ball. Or, perhaps, Harbaugh is rope-a-doping the competition, just playing around with formations (he uses more than just about anyone) to make Florida waste time preparing for something Michigan has no plan on using.

Speight was dreadful in the spring game, and frosh Brandon Peters looked a lot better. Coming out of Rome, there was noise that Peters could win the job.

I don't think so. Speight has completed 62 percent of his NCAA passes to date, with only seven interceptions out of 331 attempts. He also has the unusual ability to slide away from pressure and shrug off tacklers--highly useful skills on a team that is likely to have pass protection issues.

The schedule is challenging. A great Florida defense in Dallas. An intact top-three OSU at home. Wisconsin and a top-ten PSU on the road (and probably at night). Air Force. Throw in MSU and Iowa, and you have a lot to overcome.

Alas. A 9-3 season and no Final Four seems reasonable, and that's the Vegas over/under in August.

---

U-M Football Schedule

Home games in CAPS

Sept. 2 at Florida

Sept. 9 CINCINNATI

Sept. 16 AIR FORCE

Sept. 23 at Purdue

Oct. 7 MICHIGAN STATE

Oct. 14 at Indiana

Oct. 21 at Penn State

Oct. 28 RUTGERS

Nov. 4 MINNESOTA

Nov. 11 at Maryland

Nov. 18 at Wisconsin

Nov. 25 OHIO STATE

Dec. 2 Big Ten Championship Game    (end of article)

[Originally published in September, 2017.]

 


On October 9, 2017, Douglas Bowen wrote:
There is a lot the offense can learn from the defense.

I, like many fans live outside the state of Michigan, but my family is from the Grand Rapids area. I have been a supporter of the Wolverines through the good and the bad and I will remain a loyal fan. Further, I believe Jim Harbaugh is an elite coach, but the fact is that he needs to win the big games (we all understand what I mean), a national championship or at least consistently win the Big 10 conference championship. Having said all the above…

The offensive game plan was the second worse I have seen for an elite college football program (I block out of my mind the Rich Rod years) and only topped by the Urban Myer v. Michigan State game from a couple of years ago. I will not go into detail, but the failure to score on Saturday and the lack of scoring success in the red zone is not a failure of the players to include Speight or O'Korn, but rather an offensive game plan that does not seem to adapt to changing players, the opponent or the weather conditions. Compare the offense on the initial 2 series on Saturday to the next many series during the same game. Compare the offense all season in the red zone to the offense that resulted in getting into the red zone. Compare the offensive plan this year to the past 2 years. The only success in the red zone occurred in the Purdue game when O'Korn was allowed to play to his strengths and force the Purdue defense to make plays.

It is as if the coaches decide what will be run and think they can will it to occur rather than adapting to the changing circumstances (the old fit a square peg in a round hole game plan). The defense seems to consistently adapt to changing circumstances during the game and there has been consistent success on defense over the past 3 years even when the talent on defense was a bit lower level in Harbaugh year 1 and when the defense had to replace a lot of key talent in year 3 (this year).

Further, Mark Dantonio is not an elite coach as I do not see him as a coach that recruits at a top level and I have not seen any evidence that he can manage top level recruits. Mark Dantonio does a very good job developing lower level recruits and has demonstrated that he is a smarter coach than Urban Myer and Jim Harbaugh as he has beat both with inferior talent and Mark Dantonio has accomplished far more than Nick Saban did as the head coach of Michigan State.

Clearly the superior team at Michigan got beat by Michigan State just as occurred at Iowa in 2016 and Urban Meyer's team was beat by Michigan State in 2015 due offensive game plan that is hard headed in seeing only what it wants to see and is blinded to the obvious. I will always remain as a fan of U of M and Harbaugh and I will follow Michigan as I have for 45+ years, but I will reframe from watching Michigan games on tv with the exception of championship and playoff games as at least the opponent should have equal or superior talent therefore it will not aggravate me to the same extent as it does when they lose to inferior talented teams due to what I believe is the "fit a square peg in the round hole offensive game plan."

I love watching all U of M sports on BTN and I have made trips to watch the football game to include a trip to Dallas this year to see the team play Florida, but no more will I watch the team on tv during the regular season. This is only one man's opinion and Jim Harbaugh as our coach is worth every penny paid to him, so this is not a call for a head of anyone and just what I have decided to do to reduce my aggravation.

 
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