Jay Harbaugh takes studied approach to running backs

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Ty Isaac

Ann Arbor — Jay Harbaugh never played running back. He has never coached the position, either.

Until now.

After spending his first two seasons at Michigan coaching tight ends, he is drawing on that experience, along with his work as an graduate assistant at Oregon State and a quality control coach with the Baltimore Ravens, to develop his own spin on coaching running backs.

He has been undaunted by the challenge and, in fact, immediately embraced the idea when his father, head coach Jim Harbaugh, called him late one night this year to tell him of his assignment change. From that moment on, Jay Harbaugh said he watched hours of film on NFL running backs and relied on the knowledge he picked up from close friend Thomas Hammock, running backs coach for the Ravens.

“The way that coaching works, if you’re doing it right, you’re kind of absorbing everything,” Harbaugh said after practice Thursday. “I worked with quarterbacks before in Baltimore. Spent a great deal of time with them and in that world, you’re talking about protections. Constantly talking about protections. With tight ends, there’s route running, there’s run-game blocking, so the only thing that’s different is carrying the ball.

“Luckily we have talented guys that are good at doing that on their own, and I can help them with guidance in terms of, ‘Hey, read this. I think the ball should have gone here or there.’ It’s probably a little bit not as big an adjustment as it would be made out to be.”

Running back Karan Higdon said at first he was shocked when he learned Harbaugh would be his new position coach after Tyrone Wheatley, who had coached the position the last two years before he moved to the NFL. But Higdon said he has faith in Harbaugh and his decision-making.

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“So far it really hasn’t been much of a difference,” Higdon said Thursday. “Obviously coach Jay hasn’t played the position, so he’s coming from a different perspective and that aspect he can’t give the aspect on how exactly we should run, but he gives us details on how we can attack certain situations, which is very good.”

Harbaugh is able to work with the backs on technique even though he didn’t have the background of playing the position.

“That’s one thing I love about him,” Higdon said. “He studied the game. He knows he didn’t play the position, so he took a different perspective and decided to study the game. He’s watched films of NFL running backs and he’s been able to carry over those techniques with us, and it’s been working a lot. He’s definitely been working day in and day out to try and make sure he’s prepared for us to give us the best advice he can.”

Higdon said there has been an enormous focus this spring on pass protection. Harbaugh, having worked with quarterbacks in Baltimore, certainly understands why that is vital for his running backs to fully embrace. And having worked with tight ends he has drawn from teaching blocking skills.

“Ty Isaac has improved quite a bit,” Harbaugh said. “He’s been excellent so far. Both fullbacks have been tremendous, Khalid (Hill) and (Henry) Poggi, so I think we need some more live reps. The spring game (on Saturday) will tell a lot with live bullets flying and seeing how people react, but those guys are standing out.”

Harbaugh said he approached his new position group with a “clean slate.”

“I knew what those guys were,” he said. “It’s a new season. It’s a relatively new offense in terms of a lot of things we’ll do. It’s kind of a fresh start for everybody.”

The first two seasons under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan has relied on a tailback-by-committee approach. Jay Harbaugh seems to be following in that mold and does not see it as a negative.

“The guys are going to be put in position to do the things that they’re good at, so it might be a certain run for a certain guy, a certain type of scheme for another guy,” Harbaugh said. “Obviously, any coach would like a guy to emerge you can trust, but in reality, I’d like everyone to emerge and I’d like to be thinking, ‘Hey, I’d like this guy to be in, but I’d like to be playing these guys, too.’ You like to be able to trust your whole group.

“I’ve never liked thinking about running backs like that, like you’re assuming that two or three guys aren’t going to be good enough. I want everyone to be good. I think it’s pretty simple, but for some reason that’s never talked about.”

Harbaugh said the spring game at Michigan Stadium will give him a much better feel for the talent at running back. He explained that of all the position groups, the backs get less of a “live” feel than the others in practice.

“The practice is game speed minus the tackling,” he said. “Running back is the one position and quarterback where live tempo and getting tackled really reveals something. In a spring game it’s definitely exciting to see who can create yards after contact.”

angelique.chengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @chengelis