Webb: Camps in SEC country a win-win for Harbaugh, players

Sam Webb
Special to The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh talks to reporters at the Cedar Grove camp Thursday in Atlanta.

The barbs traded between Jim Harbaugh and an assortment of southern coaches over satellite camps in recent months portended an acrimonious scene if he ever came face-to-face with any of them.

The first opportunity for such an interaction came Thursday at The Next Level Elite Football Camp at Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson high. Coaches from Michigan were joined by those from Georgia, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State, Miami, South Carolina, and a host of others. Most onlookers, though, were focused on the interaction between Harbaugh and Georgia head coach Kirby Smart. Their contentious exchange over Michigan’s spring break practices in Florida left many wondering if the Power Five coaches could occupy the same space harmoniously.

While there didn’t seem to be any chummy moments between the two, there was definitely a peaceful coexistence.

The positive tone was set before the event kicked off when Harbaugh had MLB Hall of Famer Hank Aaron address the campers. After Aaron delivered a message imploring his captive audience to not take shortcuts en route to reaching their goals, Harbaugh held their attention for a few more minutes so all of the coaches in attendance could introduce themselves.  The first one he yielded to was Smart.

“It was good,” Harbaugh said regarding his interaction with Smart.  “All the Georgia coaches and everybody. It’s connecting to the whole football world. You feel like you’ve tapped into a big portion of the football world when you’re out here. The coaches and the players, the little kids out on the side, parents … everybody is connected to a big part of the football world.”

But not necessarily the part in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban’s unwavering disdain for satellite camps was again on display during SEC meetings earlier this week. Harbaugh firmly and promptly called his contemporary out afterward, and being in Saban’s backyard didn’t bring about a sudden desire to equivocate.

Said Harbaugh, “The issue is what I said it was. Somebody who had recently broken rules and has that in their history is lecturing us coaches on potentially violating rules. It was hypocritical. I thought it was a hypocritical act.”

Wojo: Saban frets while Harbaugh gets his way

The minute spent addressing that topic seemed to be the only time that Harbaugh didn’t have a smile on his face.  That he enjoyed himself from start to finish was abundantly clear.

“They’ve got a real heart for football and they’ve got the football faces,” Harbaugh said of the campers. “They’re working and smiling at the same time, enjoying every minute of it. It was a joy to coach them, it was a joy to be around them. I was like a pig in slop. It was outstanding.

“It’s great to be out in America. You know? In my America you’re allowed to cross state borders. It’s good to be here in Georgia.”

Positive experience

Scout.com South regional manager Chad Simmons was on hand for the event and believes it was a positive experience for all involved.

“How can it not be when Harbaugh is in a Hank Aaron jersey (and) Henry Aaron is out here talking to the kids,” Simmons quipped.  “I think it was very good.  (The coaches) worked together well and I think they all got what they wanted to get out of this camp. I think it was pretty successful.”

Based on the timing of the camp, Simmons doesn’t believe there many objections from high school coaches either.

“They don’t mind if their kid goes now and gets it done, but they have their own team workouts, their own team 7-on-7s … their own team commitments for camps and things like that,” he said.  “As long as it doesn’t take away from their team time to get better for 2016, I think they’re OK with it.”

Cedar Grove head coach Jimmy Smith was more than OK with it. The camp’s organizer said it achieved everything he’d hoped it would and then some.

“I think now that these kids saw coaches from Michigan and Pittsburgh, these schools are not out of sight anymore,” Smith told Atlanta Journal Constitution partner SECcountry.com. “Now when these kids talk about going on visits, they may not mention the same schools anymore. I think now these kids are going to think outside the box and say, ‘OK, maybe I can go to Maryland or Pittsburgh or Virginia.’ Some guys may think if they can’t go to Georgia, they can’t go anywhere.

“Some of these kids would never have the opportunity to get coached by these guys and get seen by them if it wasn’t for this.”

Netori Johnson

That probably describes most of the kids in attendance. Smith just happens to coach a number of players to which that doesn’t apply.  One of them is four-star offensive guard Netori Johnson. The 2017 Georgia commit had no problem being seen. His 6-4, 350-pound frame, impressive agility, and blazing red hair make him impossible to miss.  The camp was still beneficial, though, because it gave him the opportunity to interact with Michigan’s coaches. That caused a spike in his interest in the Maize and Blue.

“This camp was beautiful … great,” said Johnson. “It was banging, man. I didn’t expect it to go as well as it did. I didn’t expect as many people to come out. There’s probably 300-some people and I didn’t expect that. A lot of my Cedar Grove teammates are here. Michigan came out here and engulfed everything in yellow. There’s probably about 20-30 coaches. Georgia didn’t bring as many. I don’t think they brought their whole coaching staff but I think they brought a select few that I know of.

“This camp did change my opinion of Michigan. I’ll most definitely be getting up there.”

'Anything in possible'

Georgia commits Breon Dixon (Loganville, Ga., Grayson four-star linebacker) and Jaden Hunter (Atlanta Westlake four-star linebacker) confirmed plans to visit Ann Arbor also. Simmons believes Harbaugh and Co. face uphill battles with all of them, but especially with Hunter and Dixon. However, the Wolverines might have a puncher’s chance at Johnson.

“Netori is a one-time ‘Bama commit (then) obviously went to Georgia and is committed there now,” said Simmons.  “He’s obviously going to take his trips and look around. He (moved to) Texas and he’s been back in Georgia for a couple of years now. There’s no allegiance to the UGA where he grew up a diehard fan.

“I think if (Michigan) can get him on campus, anything is possible.”

It doesn’t hurt that one of his former teammates, Elysee Mbem-Bosse, is a member of Michigan’s incoming freshman class.  Time will tell how truly meaningful those positive signs are.

The more immediate good news came Friday from another prospect on hand Thursday. Stone Mountain (Ga.) Stephenson junior-to-be offensive guard Jalil Irvin committed to Michigan, becoming the third Wolverine pledge in the 2018 class.

Sam Webb is managing editor of TheMichiganInsider.com and co-host of the “Michigan Insider” show on WTKA 1050 in Ann Arbor.