Apologies for skipping FBO last week, but there’s only so much time in a week and the hockey preview wasn’t going to write itself. (Someone on North Campus just read that sentence and scoffed; email me if you have robots that will help us divvy up our workload and dump some of it on automatons, Michigan Engineering students/professors.)
The night before the Wisconsin game was a miserably rainy one in southeastern Michigan, but that didn’t stop David and I from climbing on top of the Oak Park press box (with their permission, of course) to film 2017 commit Ja’Raymond Hall, 2018 target Marquan McCall, and 2019 QB D’wan Mathis. We ended up primarily scouting Hall, however, as McCall was injured and didn’t play and Mathis didn’t start (though he did rotate in fairly often, he fumbled early, got pulled, got put back in, and then got fewer and fewer snaps as the game went on).
Hall’s an interesting prospect. He was offered early in the process and his enthusiasm for Michigan was palpable; the first time I watched him was at the 2015 Sound Mind Sound Body camp, and he was decked out in Michigan gear. Take a look at his visit history and you can see that he’s long held a serious interest in the program, and has continued to stay connected after committing last December.
At one time he was a Top100 prospect on 247, but he tumbled more than 200 spots when 247 updated their rankings in July. He’s currently the #31 offensive tackle and ranked #312 nationally per the 247 composite; Hall is a four-star in the composite, but just a three-star to 247. Did we see what they must have seen? You’ll have to…
[Hit THE JUMP for Ja’Raymond Hall film and scouting report]
Mailbag: Coachin' Poachin', Injury Redshirts, Shelton Johnson And Shelton Johnson, The Only Good Sports Movie
Will someone raid the braintrust this offseason? [Bryan Fuller]
In your last UV you talked about how there's basically air behind Tom Herman as far as possibly available decent head coaches go. What are the odds that Don Brown gets poached by someone? Is that something he would be looking for?
What are the chances that one of our coordinators gets a look a high level job? Jedd Fisch or Tim Drevno probably are most at risk? Wheatley probably stays to fill in one of their roles if they go so he can be with his son for a few more year so that’s probably not a huge deal. Is this something that is concerning to you? I didn’t see it specifically flagged in your post today, nor did it really matter with Durkin moving on and the staff staying put.
Similarly, any shot at OSU getting some of their staff poached (and maybe less loyalty to Urban for a chance to move up the ranks)?
-Jim Dudnick BBA ‘01
Don Brown is a minimal threat to leave. He's 61 and is a DC lifer in the same way that Bud Foster is. Nobody gets a first-time head coaching gig in their 60s unless they've been promoted from within. FWIW, when Michigan hired him Jim Harbaugh said he went into that hire trying to find someone who could provide some stability and Brown provides that. This is another reason grabbing Brown was such a good move.
Things are more uncertain on the offensive side of the ball, where both Fisch and Drevno could pop up on smaller schools' radars. Fisch has already been mentioned as a potential option at FIU by Bruce Feldman. Drevno hasn't come up yet. Meanwhile they're coordinator types under Jim Harbaugh, who runs the show on O. Usually guys like that have to put in at least five years before they start getting mentioned.
Meanwhile, these days the pay bump when you get a head job at a smaller school is small or even nonexistent. Ron Turner was making 550k at FIU; Drevno is at 800k. There aren't many non-Power 5 schools who could make a compelling offer to high-paid Michigan assistants.
Fisch is 40; Drevno is 47. Both have some time to find the right opportunity before their window of opportunity shuts. They're likely to be patient, passing up jobs like FIU as they wait for a Power 5 opening like DJ Durkin got. Even then, do you want to sign up for a meat grinder like Purdue? Probably not.
I can't say with certainty that both guys will be back but I wouldn't worry about losing them to an AAC team, and it doesn't look like there will be any plausible openings in the Big Ten this year. (Purdue: nope.) I'd bet Michigan gets everybody back.
[After THE JUMP: redshirts, Shelton Johnsons, omnipotence paradoxes]
Billy Donlon protects the rim against Xavier Simpson. [Isaiah Hole/247]
I planned to spend the assistant coaches portion of media day splitting time evenly between the three assistants. After wanding into Billy Donlon's scrum, however, I never made it out. Michigan's new de facto defensive coordinator, even if he's reluctant to use that term, gave a lot of insight into how he approaches coaching defense and guard play. I tried to pick and choose the highlights from the half-hour or so of audio I have from him; I still ended up transcribing nearly 4000 words.
- Donlon coaches a man-to-man defense with what he calls a gap philosophy, which is similar to the pack-line defense.
- Expect to see Michigan stop fast breaks more often by fouling—Donlon mentions this tactic as a significant breakthrough in transition defense brought over by European coaches/players.
- Toughness is a skill that can be taught.
- Saddi Washington is a "grand slam" hire.
- He's "in awe" of how John Beilein does his job.
- "When you’re an assistant you make suggestions. When you’re a head coach you make decisions."
On what he may have seen on film from Michigan last year that is correctable:
I think you just try to look at some things from film from last year that maybe we could work on or address or understand the rules, and for me just trying to familiarize just the Big Ten in general. That was what I tried to do with some of the free time, when you’re not recruiting, when you’re not with the guys. You’re always trying to get it better. We’ll continue to work really hard at trying to get it better.
On his defensive philosophy:
We’re a gap team. The gap is really similar to the pack-line. The pack-line is a little lower. In the gap you’re a little closer in terms of you’re up the line a little bit more, you’re one step off the line of the ball and your man versus maybe two steps in the pack-line. In the pack-line, that means it’s more contained. [In] the gap, the closeout isn’t as hard. There’s good and bad in everything that you choose to do. The great thing about both of those is you can easily go from the gap to pack-line and then back, because they’re similar. That’s been how I’ve grown up playing in it and also coaching it, and it’s similar to what they’ve done here, to be honest.
[Hit THE JUMP.]
John U. Bacon has added a 60-page afterword to
Brandon's Lasting Lessons Endzone detailing Harbaugh's first season in Ann Arbor. A paperback edition is coming out to accompany this afterword, and Bacon's generously offered to run an excerpt from the afterword. This is it.
History is replete with the dangers facing anyone declared the messiah. As Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said, “Pride comes before the fall.” But the praise is only dangerous if the recipient believes it. Harbaugh seems too busy to give the hype much attention.
“We’re here, in Schembechler Hall, all day,” he told me in his first spring. “But I remember telling recruits there’s a lot of excitement and hunger for Michigan football right now.”
He paused just a bit before adding, “Hungry dogs hunt best.”
That Harbaugh, the biggest catch in the coaching sea, seemed to be hungrier than the rabid fans and determined insiders who helped bring him back to Ann Arbor only made them love the guy even more.
But could Harbaugh do the job? Given the scope of the task, it wasn’t a rhetorical question. Harbaugh had to restore a program that had fallen into almost unrecognizable disrepair. He had to fill the Big House, and help get the department out of debt, while adhering to Michigan’s values of fair play. And he had to reunite the Michigan family, which had been fractured for a decade.
Harbaugh, consciously or not, started doing all these things the day he arrived, but in reverse order. The moment the tires on Harbaugh’s plane touched the tarmac, Michigan's fan base was united, in a way it hadn’t been since at least 1997.
Likewise, after thousands of Michigan fans stubbornly held on to their ticket applications until interim AD Jim Hackett named the next coach, the instant Harbaugh took the podium, the fans’ forms started flooding the department to ensure they could keep their seats, including the all-important skyboxes, which quickly sold out. The Nike contract soon followed, worth a record $173.8 million, which prompted MGoBlog’s Ace Anbender to write this headline: “Nike Gives Michigan All the Money.” It’s safe to assume Nike didn’t back up the Brinks Truck based on Michigan’s 5-7 record in 2014, but because they wanted the man in khakis.
The stunning change of fortune could only be sustained, however, with success on the field, and that would be harder to achieve.
If Harbaugh and the fans were hungry, so were the players. The Wolverines got their five Big Ten losses in 2014 the old-fashioned way: they’d earned them.
One trait throughout history that all successful generals have shared is an uncommon ability to analyze their troops strengths and weaknesses with cool detachment. Leaders in the habit of kidding themselves do not last long. Harbaugh demonstrated this vital quality when he started evaluating the game film of Michigan’s returning players in his office, which he calls his “football bunker.” Despite Brady Hoke’s top seven recruiting classes from 2012 and 2013, who were now sophomores and juniors, according to several witnesses, not only did Harbaugh grade most of Michigan’s returning players as average or lower, he was alarmed by what he termed an “intensity deficit.” They simply weren’t tough enough, physically or mentally. As a direct result, they were prone to wear down and fall apart by the fourth quarter, a tendency Michigan demonstrated in numerous games the previous seasons.
The clear-eyed assessment presented only three solutions: recruit better, coach better, and play better. In typical fashion, Harbaugh didn’t waste any time getting to work on all three.
“The biggest change,” tight-end Jake Butt told me, “and a lot of people noticed it, was this: my first two years [under Brady Hoke] we heard constant talk of challenging each other in practice, and competing to win a Big Ten title, but the level of work did not compare to what we did when Coach Harbaugh first got here. We’d always worked hard before, but we were not as smart, or as efficient.
“He made it crystal clear: The only way to win is to put the work in. Because of the environment he created, we were forced to prepare to compete against the best, every day.”
This sea change started on the first day of spring practice. While most college coaches use the NCAA’s daily allotted four hours with their team by meeting for 90 minutes or more, then practicing for 2.5 hours or less, Harbaugh decided to spend all four hours practicing, which was unheard of.
“Very first day, he got our attention,” Butt said. “I’d never done a four-hour practice. No one had. It kind of just smacked you in the mouth. By the second hour, because of the pace, it started to hurt. By the third hour, Coach Harbaugh gathered us around him, and told us, ‘This is where you guys lost games last year. You ran out of gas. You started making mistakes. And you started turning on each other.
“’These practices are not supposed to be easy. We’re not focusing on winning this or winning that. Not now. We’re just going to be the hardest working team in the country. And we’re going to embrace that.
“’We’re turning our weakness into our strength. And that’s why, this season, we’re going to win games in the fourth quarter.’”
With that, Harbaugh blew his whistle, and sent them back to their stations to complete their fourth hour of practice, at full-speed.
The visitors to that first spring practice included Jack and Jackie Harbaugh, who’ve seen several thousand practices between them. But they’d never seen this.
“Four hour practices?” Jack told me. “I’d not experienced that in my entire career. Golly, is this thing ever going to end?
“After practice, Jim ran by me and said, ‘Class on the grass.’ And just like that, it all made sense to me,” Jack said. Yes, Jack is Jim’s father, but impressing Jack Harbaugh isn’t easy, even for his children – and perhaps especially for his children. But this impressed him. “I’ve been in so many of those team meetings, which you spend three hours just preparing to run. When you finally got up there, you always had a handful of players that are grasping it, but others who had no interest in it at all. And that was about the best you could do. You get two-thirds, you think you’ve hit a home run.
“What Jim did is take the meeting out of the classroom, and onto the field, where you don’t have much choice but to pay attention! In his class, they’re looking at an actual 4-3 front, or they’re looking at a blitz, they talk about it -- and then it comes after them! Yes, they were paying attention!
“My goodness! All those years I was coaching, there wasn’t anyone who could come up with that idea? Not me, I’m not smart enough. Glad Jim is!”
Ultimately, the only opinions that mattered were the players’ – and Harbaugh had them.
“Coach was right – about all of it,” Butt continued. “Last year, when just one thing went wrong, we we were so shocked we had no ability to adjust, to come back. And we didn’t have enough strength left to do it, anyway.
“Coach talked to us about the ‘football callus,’ the soreness, and the pain, you feel at the end of the day after a good practice. So you just toughen your skin a bit, and you go another week, you get a stronger callous, and by the fourth or fifth week, a four-hour practice is nothing. And everything he told us was true."
By the end of spring ball, Harbaugh had his team.
“The 20-year olds know when the coaches are sincere,” Jim’s mother, Jackie, told me. “I just marveled at the way the players reacted to the practices. They were all quick tempo, but I didn’t see one player coming off the field, dragging or complaining. They had smiles on their faces when they came off the field, because they knew they were getting better! ‘I feel better! I understand what I’m supposed to be doing in this situation.’ And you’d see them in the hallway after, they were all so happy, so polite, so very nice. You could just see the players wanted to compete! They wanted to be the BEST!
“It was just fun for me to watch all of that, to see it develop.”
What Harbaugh’s players were doing on that practice field, when almost no one was watching, was more important to the future of the program than all the things happening outside it.
Two weeks after the Michigan State loss, Michigan traveled to Minnesota to face a resurgent Gopher team, which had thrashed the Wolverines in the infamous “Shane Morris game” the previous season. The Gophers had more motivation in 2015, after head coach Jerry Kill announced he was stepping down due to epileptic seizures.
The Wolverines had plenty of motivation of their own, including a share of the East Division title if they won out. After suffering a historic setback, would the Wolverines fold the tents, as they had in recent years, or would they take the punch and come out fighting, as Harbaugh had been training them to do since their first four-hour practice?
The teams swapped the lead in the first half, with Michigan taking a 21-16 lead early in the third quarter.
“In the first six games,” quarterback Jake Rudock told me, “I’d felt my confidence and rhythm gradually improving, but it was on and off. It wasn’t until the Minnesota game that I really got in a groove, and knew the light was staying on.”
But late in the third quarter, Rudock tried to scramble for a few yards. “But the way the geometry and physics of the situation played out, I could see the play was not setting up well for me, so I just tried to get down.”
He did, but not before two Gopher defenders got to him. “When my helmet came off, I’m thinking, ‘That’s usually not a good sign.’ It was one of those hits that just hurt – hurt real bad – and I felt it in my neck and ribs. It hurt to move, and I wasn’t breathing.”
Once he was out of the game, he told backup quarterback Wilton Speight, “Just relax. Just play. Don’t worry about the coach, or anything else. If there’s a play you don’t want to run, tell him now! Trust me, [offensive coordinator Jedd] Fisch would rather not call it than have you in the huddle saying, ‘Shit, what is this?’”
It didn’t take immediately. Speight’s three passes were incomplete, resulting in three punts, while the Gophers took a 26-21 lead with 11:43 remaining. But with Harbaugh and Fisch giving Speight the plays he wanted, Speight found his own rhythm. On third and ten from Minnesota’s 12-yard line, and about five minutes left, Speight threw a perfectly placed pass to Jehu Chesson in traffic, for a touchdown, and followed up with a pass to Amara Darboh for the two-point conversion, and a crucial three-point lead.
Down 29-26, Minnesota drove the ball to Michigan’s one yard-line with two seconds left. Interim coach Tracy Claeys bypassed the field goal to force overtime, to try for the touchdown, and the win. In one of Michigan’s most dramatic goal-line stands, the Wolverines broke through the line, stuffed the runner, and held their ground, for a gritty victory.
Harbaugh had promised them that, if they stuck with it, they’d be winning games in the fourth quarter, and here was proof.
"To be able to win a tough one, it's a great learning experience because it reinforces everything you tell them about never giving up, fighting to the end," Harbaugh said after the game. "That's the thing I'm most excited about. Our team has learned a very important lesson."
Six months later, the lesson seemed just as big.
“Against Minnesota, we battled back,” Harbaugh told me. “The big thing, to me, was this: no one gave up. That’s why I don’t think anyone on our side was surprised we had a chance to win it at the end. And when we stuffed them at the goal line – man, that was great. A thrilling victory. The wonderful feeling of winning.
The revised edition of Endzone is available now. (Yes, they fixed the typos.)
About Last Week:
Michigan scored 78 points, which is pretty hard to comprehend. So let’s try to put 78 points in context. Imagine each point is a Honda Civic.
Hot DAMN that’s a lot of Honda Civics.
Put it another way: if Rutgers got a point for…
- every passing yard;
- every rushing yard;
- every receiving yard;
- every completion;
- every Michigan penalty (offensive or defensive);
- every Michigan penalty yard (offensive or defensive);
- every first down gained;
- every 3rd down conversion;
- every 4th down conversion;
- every turnover caused, and
- every point scored
…they would have scored 77 points.
The Road Ahead:
Illinois (1-4, 0-2 B1G)
Last week: Lost to Purdue, 34-31 (OT)
Oh Lovie, no. Noooooo no no.
We’re not going to talk about this game, other than to say that (a) it featured a triple-icing of the Illinois kicker at the end of regulation (which worked), and (b) it was bad and the teams should feel bad. This was essentially Rutgers playing Rutgers. Hopefully Illinois has a better performance this weekend against OH DAMMIT NO THEY’RE PLAYING ACTUAL RUTGERS. Yeah, we’re not talking about that game either.
Woe unto the MGoStaff who have to break down Illinois film next week.
This team is as frightening as: A Tim Beckman team. Is that mean? That seem mean. But I stand by it. Fear Level = 2
Michigan should worry about: After Wes Lunt got knocked out, Chayce Crouch (yes, that is a real name) threw for 142 yards at over 10 yards per pass and carried the ball 17 times for 137 yards. Granted, it was against Purdue, but maybe they found a non-Wes Lunt option?
Michigan can sleep soundly about: Illinois’ rushing defense is #119 overall in S&P+. Purdue had 10 yards on 27 rushing attempts against Maryland. They had 231 yards on 41 carries against Illinois.
When they play Michigan: Both teams will get some fresh air.
This week: at Rutgers, noon, ESPNNEWS (Sadness -77.5)
[Hit the JUMP for a preview of the electric atmosphere Michigan will face in East Lansing]
I'm finally getting around to this now that football is taking a breather. This is from last Monday, and I'll also have a transcript of Billy Donlon's illuminating media day press scrum tomorrow before digging into the meat of the season preview.
- This was after only a couple practices, so it's light on specifics about how the team is looking right now, though there was still plenty to cover from the offseason.
- The team spent a lot more time this offseason on individual defense.
- Billy Donlon is, yes, a pseudo-defensive coordinator, and he's been very vocal in practice. Beilein notes that Donlon's defenses have been better than Michigan's, so he's listening closely to Donlon's input.
- Beilein may be rethinking autobench. (!!!)
- Xavier Simpson and Derrick Walton will play at the same time, perhaps with more frequency than we expect.
- I nearly forgot my question after Beilein said he likes my tweets.
[Joined just after the start of the opening statement.]
Excited to get back to practice again, my 42nd season, my tenth season at Michigan. It’s wonderful to coach this group of young men we have right now. The transition with our staff thus far has been terrific. Really, really love the new information, the excitement, the great parallels between Saddi [Washington] and Bill Donlon, and Val Jordan and Bacari Alexander. It’s been a really good transition thus far.
We’ve had two practices, I can’t tell you a whole lot. I think that we spent a great, probably 500% more, in the summer, on just individual defense as opposed to evaluating players, so I don’t have a lot of evaluation for you today. We haven’t scrimmaged yet. I would say we’ve probably scrimmaged for 60 minutes the entire summer, so I can’t give you much information for what I feel, who’s where, other than what I do know. We’re trying to get in a stance, we’re trying to guard people, we’re trying to do a much better job that what we did last year. I hope you’ll see a little bit, it’s going to be a very boring practice for you, it’s going to be an hour of some stretching, and there will be some shooting, and there will be a little bit more. There won’t be a dunk contest and there won’t be any type of scrimmage in there at all, but you’ll get a little idea for who the players are, what numbers they are, and that’ll be just about it.
As I said, I feel recharged and reenergized by so many things that have occurred with this class of really five new players coming, with the four freshmen and Charles Matthews. Last year we just had Moe Wagner, that was it. Reteaching things, retooling things has been really energizing for us. Listening to Saddi and to Bill has been great. You go back six years ago and having Bacari and Val walk in, and Jeff Meyer, and it’s like that time all over again where I can say, okay, this is what’s gone on the last six years, this is where the game has changed, have I changed enough, and then we just go from there. A lot of trial and error still in practice in these six weeks, and then I know we won’t have it perfect by the time of the first game. We just want to be really good by the time we get to that Big Ten schedule.
I hope you’re all excited about our football team right now being 5-0. It’s a great start. I was following the game the other day, for you Catholics out there I don’t know if I’m in trouble, but I was looking at my phone during a wedding Mass on Saturday. That probably didn’t give me absolution for that, but I was following the game on the phone. I probably shouldn’t have told the bride and the groom that just now, either, but I just did.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the transcript.]