Jim Harbaugh: Wolverines putting in the work as team's leadership takes shape

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Spring football practice is often a time when leaders emerge for the upcoming season.

Michigan, like most college programs across the country, didn’t have spring football this year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Wolverines have seen leaders develop during this unique time.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh singled out defensive tackle Donovan Jeter as a player who has put in the work this offseason to improve his skills and stay in shape.

Michigan coaches have said they’ve experienced a different closeness with players these last few months, thanks in large part to video conferencing and having more time just to talk. With that development along with a successful winter conditioning, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said he has seen the football team’s leadership take shape.

Players have been on campus the last few weeks for voluntary workouts, and structured workouts with coaches will begin July 24. No decisions have been made regarding the upcoming season.

“It’s a very strong team in terms of (leadership),” Harbaugh said Wednesday during a video news conference. “That continued through those three or four months when guys were away from here even though we didn’t have practice.

“I see that same momentum. The guys invested a lot and they’re very excited. And they’re also leading by example and they’re leading each other, and it’s been at a really high level. The workouts get tougher, and time demands it get tougher, but so far so good in terms of the commitment of the team.”

Harbaugh rattled off the names of players who have been strong leaders during this time, among them defensive tackle Carlo Kemp, a co-captain last season, and defensive ends Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson. He said quarterbacks Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton, tight end Nick Eubanks, linebacker Josh Ross, and kicker Quinn Nordin are among those who have taken on significant leadership roles.

“And I’m referring to the workouts, the virtual workouts, the meetings — just so good,” Harbaugh said of players holding each other accountable. “So many guys, really. Could keep going on. It’s been really that good, and I think it’ll continue.”

Harbaugh has stayed in constant communication with his players. Spring practice not only would have given rise to leaders on the team, but it would have been an important time in terms of determining the path of some significant position battles. For one, starting quarterback.

McCaffrey and Milton will be the chief competitors for the starting spot, as well as Cade McNamara.

“I see the kind of shape that they’re in, I see the drive that they have, which is very high,” Harbaugh said. “And they’ve been tremendous leaders, especially Dylan and Joe and Cade through the virtual meetings, the virtual workouts, doing the right things. It’s very important to them.”

Harbaugh said the players returned to campus in very good shape considering most had returned home, did not have access to gyms and had to get creative in terms of workouts.

“The guy that stands out the most is RJ Moten, who’s an incoming freshman,” he said. “He would text me his bike-riding workouts. He had a workout where he was riding with a trainer (and went on) a 52- or 53-mile bike ride, 3,100-(plus) calories that he burned, and he was doing it a couple of times a week. When he finally did show up, he just looked great.

“Another example is (defensive tackle) Donovan Jeter. Donovan probably played last year at 290-295 (pounds), and he’s up to 320-325 this year. He’s moving faster, quicker, side-to-side and forwards. That stands out.”

Harbaugh has been encouraged by how players handled themselves away from campus, how they returned, and how they’re maintaining caution by wearing masks and social distancing.

Coaches will be able to start on-field work with the players beginning July 24, but he already feels like the players are ahead because they’ve been so focused on remaining prepared.

“The things we suggested, and I think they really bought into, was that providence will favor the prepared and being prepared,” Harbaugh said. “And even the question, will we have a season — better to be prepared and not have the opportunity than to have the opportunity and not be prepared. I think our guys have done a really good job, a really tremendous job from what I’ve seen.”


Twitter: @chengelis