Wojo: Harbaugh wants Wolverines back at big-boy table

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh

Ann Arbor – Michigan's football team disappeared for a few weeks, and figuratively, for a few years. And thanks to Jim Harbaugh's self-described submarine, we don't know what's emerging now.

Quarterback? Uh, sure, there will be a quarterback when Michigan opens at Utah next Thursday night. It almost assuredly will be Iowa transfer Jake Rudock, but Harbaugh won't say.

Depth chart? Uh, sure, there will be a depth chart. But Harbaugh won't release it until Utah releases its own Monday, and he might or might not list starters by their real names.

Running back? There are three — De'Veon Smith, Derrick Green, Ty Isaac — and any could play. Or all will play. Or maybe offensive coordinator Tim Drevno will just call plays for fullbacks and tight ends.

In less than a week, Harbaugh's program moves from a wildly celebrated concept to raw reality, and unknowns will be revealed. He's probably still not sure what he has, but he absolutely knows what he wants.

Michigan football became completely different — and familiar at the same time — the moment Harbaugh replaced Brady Hoke. It's different in the coach's aura and the national fascination. For the players, it's different in many ways, from the lengthy practices to the quirks and no-perks approach.

Harbaugh hasn't made a single brash claim to ramp up expectations. His presence is the draw, and he can't avoid attention even when he secludes his team for training camp. Fox Sports 1, which is airing Michigan-Utah, strapped a gigantic pair of khaki pants on its "Har-bus" to tout the opener. That's probably not the tact Harbaugh would have preferred, but there's no turning back now.

"Is it overwhelming?" Harbaugh said Thursday, repeating the question. "I asked our team the same thing, and the answer is no. You want to be at the big-boy table, or the big-persons table. There's another table in the kitchen for those that aren't seated at the big-persons table. If somebody wants to go over there, nobody's gonna be upset with them. This is what we signed up for. I think we'll be very well prepared to play."

A lot on the lines

That's all fans can demand right now, that the Wolverines are thoroughly prepared after last season's 5-7 disaster. Based on returning talent, Michigan will have a good defense, but isn't stacked with offensive playmakers.

Just as it's silly to judge Harbaugh's impact by the number of magazine covers, it's wrong to judge him solely on the record. Oh, there's no free pass for one of the most-acclaimed coaches in football, and his track record and recruiting prowess suggest he'll be very successful. For now, 8-4 is realistic, and the impact must be seen in the dirty places on the field.

We're talking about the defensive line, which has depth and untapped talent, despite the loss of injured Bryan Mone. We're talking about the offensive line, loaded with guys who earned stars in high school but not any stripes in college.

Kyle Kalis is one of those guys, a touted recruit who flipped from Ohio State to Michigan and became a symbol of stunted development. Kalis professes no ill will toward the previous staff, but rabid respect for the new one.

"We're definitely grasping more of how to play the offensive line, technique, footwork, stuff that we never really would practice or have a knowledge of before," Kalis said. "Coach Harbaugh is awesome. And the way coach (Drevno) coaches us, it's just working. We've had days where we're rolling guys 10 yards off the ball, and that never happened before. It's not that we couldn't do it, it's just we didn't know how to do it."

That might be an over-simplification, and it didn't help that Devin Gardner was so turnover-prone. That's why Rudock is here, to improve Michigan's staggering turnover differential (121st in the nation). He threw five interceptions for Iowa last season, and that experience should win him the job over Shane Morris. It wouldn't be a surprise if Harbaugh simply plays to the strength of his defense, moving highly-touted Jabrill Peppers all over the place.

Utah presents a nasty challenge, a hostile environment and an aggressive team that stomped Michigan 26-10 last season on its way to a 9-4 record. From a motivational standpoint, Utah is the beneficiary of the Harbaugh Hype, even if generated in ridiculous ways. The Utes reportedly were miffed by a quote in Popular Mechanics magazine that described Utah as a "cupcake" for Michigan. No word on what Cosmopolitan thinks of Utah's drab uniform ensemble.

Nothing routine

The goofy offseason ended the moment Michigan opened camp Aug. 6, and the players and Harbaugh didn't speak publicly again until Thursday. Before school starts, the 20-hours-per-week rule isn't in effect, so Harbaugh hunkered down with his team for upwards of 15 hours a day at Schembechler Hall.

"We wanted to, and I think we did, maximize every hour and every minute getting to know your team," Harbaugh said. "The focus was tremendous throughout the camp. We really enjoyed each other's company. I'm pleased with where we're at right now."

There's a positive tone to almost everything Harbaugh says, and I don't think it's to obscure the team's weaknesses. It's who and how he is. At media day three weeks ago, Harbaugh's first act was to stand before his players and announce the record for taking the team photo was 10 minutes 39 seconds. He wanted it done in 10.

He got it.

Players no longer spent camp in a plush hotel, but in stark South Quad dorm, without central air-conditioning. Practices often were held 1-4 p.m., the hottest part of the day, except for when Harbaugh called an early-morning practice, or a late-night practice, or both.

"In Coach Hoke's camps, we had this scripted schedule we'd do every day," linebacker Desmond Morgan said. "With coach Harbaugh, you find out the next day's schedule the night before. As players, it's been awesome, kept us on our toes. By no means have we gotten into a routine or got bored with anything."

There won't be anything boring about this, one of the few things we know for sure. It isn't a question of whether Harbaugh is ready for another big-boy table (he is). It's whether he can get his team ready (about to find out).