College football coaches have had to get creative in terms of recruiting these last few months during the COVID-19 pandemic, and also when it comes to interacting with their current players.
Michigan’s position coaches meet with their players on video conferencing, the coaches meet with each other virtually, and there also are big team meetings. Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh has taken an inventive approach to his position meetings and has brought in guest speakers, including former Wolverines running back Karan Higdon.
Baltimore Ravens running backs coach Matt Weiss and Deland McCullough, running backs coach for the defending Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs, also have spoken to the Michigan running backs.
“It's really great for our guys who get a chance to go outside of the walls of (Schembechler Hall) and ask questions of the stuff they wonder about and see what kinds of things are guys preaching, what's really important, or what's this guy like,” Harbaugh said last Friday in a video conference with reporters. “The topics have varied, and we've been really grateful for the time people have spent with us sharing their stories and their wisdom with us.”
Michigan suspended all on-campus activities in mid-March, and spring football practice was canceled just days before it was supposed to begin. Players have found creative ways to stay in shape while gyms were closed, they’ve had to take care of their nutrition, and they finished their classes while also studying football with their coaches via video group chats.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown have said this process, while not ideal overall, has actually allowed them to get to know recruits and current players better. They’re all communicating more. Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said during an online “Get Lit” live chat in early May that while it took some time to adjust to virtual meetings, they will not go away even when there’s a return to on-campus activity.
Jay Harbaugh said virtual technology will continue to play a role in the coaching process and will change the "standard model" of the profession. He referred to it as a “hybrid approach” to address players in more than one way.
“That's probably something that will continue to as an interesting carryover as people realize this is a great way to connect with people and bring new insights into your group,” Harbaugh said. “I think moving forward, even if we are physically in the same place, using technology to be able to include some people from elsewhere, some former players, whatever it might be, I think that is pretty cool and something that I am looking forward to.”
The players have worked on the playbook and gone over plays, but without film to watch from spring practice, there’s been more time to focus on what they’re learning and making sure everyone understands every detail.
“It's been fun because without there being film to watch that you just did, there's not that urgent, ‘Hey, we've got to watch this and get this fixed,’” Harbaugh said. “There's just a lot more dialogue, and you're able to spend more time going through the details of the system. Different plays, concepts, and really spend time really making sure guys get it, whatever it is you're talking about.
“I think what's great for the players and what we've observed from our guys is they are confident saying, ‘Hold on, can we go back over that?’ There's less of a hurried feel because you have more time to meet with them. So that's been a really positive thing, and I'm excited to see five years from now does the standard model of coaching look the same? It probably won't. I don't know how different it will be, but I think having that conversation is a healthy thing.”
Harbaugh also has used the time while at home when he’s not on dad duty — he and wife, Brhitney, who have a son, welcomed a daughter in early April — looking at film of other college and NFL backs. The offensive coaches are working on the Wolverines’ opponents this season, and they're also exploring football trends around the country.
“Just to see what can we bring into our system, what's worth exploring, this might be good, or this doesn't fit us, but all of those conversations have been good,” he said. “It's a fun group to be with. And then in terms of the running backs, it's always a good mix. Watching some college guys, watching NFL guys, doing the position group meetings with guest speakers and that sort of thing. I think it's always good to diversify where your information and knowledge is coming from, your insights.”
Any type of coaching is about being hands-on and interacting in person, but until then, this is how the Michigan coaches will continue to interact with their players.
“It's important to keep the variety up, keep it fresh, exciting, and really look at ways to keep the players engaged and growing,” Harbaugh said, “so that when we're all together we can just continue the momentum”