I’ll believe it when I see it.
That was the response we got from fans to plenty of articles that quoted players or coaches who talked about a ‘new energy’ or ‘improved culture’ during the long Michigan football offseason.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh bet on himself in January, signing a contract extension with a lower base salary and laden with incentives, then revamped his coaching staff and recruiting department.
Each move, individually, was well-liked by the fan base, but it was still in wait-and-see mode.
Fair enough. The Michigan faithful has been around the block, and they’ve been burned once or twice before. Harbaugh made wholesale changes earlier in his tenure, but the right buttons weren’t always pushed.
Well, after a lot of waiting, we’ve finally gotten the chance to see the 2021 version of Michigan football, and let us tell you — it looks nothing like 2020, when the Wolverines went 2-4 after opt-outs and injuries plagued the COVID-shortened season.
The stark differences start at the top. Harbaugh has gone back to his roots, putting more into the team and every aspect of it.
“Overall, Coach Harbaugh has been more hands on with everything,” redshirt freshman quarterback Cade McNamara said recently. “The inspiration he’s showed us this offseason has inspired us. I love being coached by him. He’s a great coach.”
In a way, it feels similar to when he took over the program in 2015, immediately flipping the trajectory and doubling the win total from the year prior. The top difference between Brady Hoke‘s final team and Harbaugh’s first group was that the latter played with more energy, intensity and — most noticeably — physicality.
To a man this season, Michigan’s players have said that being more physical has been a major point of emphasis, and it’s paying off thus far.
The Wolverines’ offensive line, led by new position coach Sherrone Moore, is much improved, creating massive holes for a rushing attack that leads the nation with 350.3 yards per game. The run schemes are a lot closer to what Harbaugh did at Stanford and in the NFL than they did at the beginning of Josh Gattis‘ rein as offensive coordinator.
Defensively, first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald has his unit mixing up fronts and coverages, confusing opposing quarterbacks and, yes, competing with more physicality.
Not only has undefeated Michigan past its first three tests (against Western Michigan, Washington and Northern Illinois), but it has also passed the ‘eye test’ to this point. Harbaugh has a lot to be proud of when looking back at the non-conference, but the thing he’s most pleased with has nothing to do with stats and everything to do with a style of play that has allowed them to have success.
“If they can keep playing as hard as they can the way they have been doing on all sides of the ball, there are ways to improve, but good things happen when you play hard,” Harbaugh said on the Inside Michigan Football radio show Monday. “And have fun. That’s the other thing, too — these guys are having fun. I can see it in their eyes in practice, as well, just a tremendous vibe.”
That new energy began in the offseason. Many credit the new assistant coaches, including former Michigan players Ron Bellamy (safeties) and Mike Hart (running backs), for turning the tide. But they give the praise right back to the players.
“It’s gotta be au naturel,” Harbaugh said. “It’s gotta come from everybody — coaches, players. Guys that really like football and then they jell, you get the chemistry. Also guys that are unselfish, playing for each other — that’s always a huge key. It’s something that you don’t just manufacture — it’s gotta be au naturel.”
Natural, but certainly not by accident. And to this point, the formula is working.
“First and foremost, get to know the kids, make sure they understand that they’re loved,” Bellamy said this week when discussing building a strong culture within the defensive backs room. “We tell them we love them every day; you’re just building that trust. We have their back, they have our back and it’s a brotherhood.”
While nobody has come out and explicitly stated it, there have been allusions to some disconnect on the staff last season, leading to a lack of cohesion between the coaches to the players and, in turn, the players to each other.
That doesn’t appear to be the case any longer.
Harbaugh wasn’t willing to take any more chances, hiring coaches who he could trust and who he knew would work well together and with the players. Bringing back Bellamy and Hart made a whole lot of sense, as did hiring Macdonald, who came highly recommended by John Harbaugh, quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss, who got his start in coaching under Harbaugh at Stanford, linebackers coach George Helow, who had a strong bond with Macdonald and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale, who Harbaugh had admired for some time and tried to hire in the past.
“Coach Harbaugh, the staff that he’s assembled, it’s awesome,” Bellamy said. The guys, we’ve meshed well together. We have fun — it’s serious, but fun. We hold each other accountable and that, for me, has been good.”
Step one of Harbaugh’s attempt to not only stop the proverbial Michigan football train from continuing to go in the wrong direction is done — the culture is better and appears to be excellent. Step two is keeping the culture intact no matter what adversity lies ahead.
And as Harbaugh said this week, “we’re about to find out, that’s for sure,” if the Wolverines are up for the task.
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