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Wojo: Harbaugh might have team to back up his boldness

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh overlooks drills Saturday at Ford Field.

Detroit – He takes shots, veiled and unveiled, at coaches and commissioners, at unwritten rules and unsuspecting adversaries. Every time Jim Harbaugh hits a Twitter target, he makes himself a bigger target, which in turn makes Michigan a bigger target.

While it’s creative and feisty and thoroughly entertaining, it doesn’t always seem to make strategic sense, especially firing at a dominant rival like Ohio State. Unless you consider this: Harbaugh probably thinks his team is good enough to handle it.

You don’t mock the Buckeyes if you think you’re going to get mashed again. You don’t take on the SEC and defy summer-camp convention if you think you can’t compete for recruits and victories. That’s the hidden message in the latest dustup, and as the Wolverines rolled out a bigger, faster, more-experienced team for a spring practice Saturday at Ford Field, it was subtly evident.

Harbaugh’s boldness may tick off others, but it emboldens the Wolverines.

“I think it shows he’s confident in us,” tight end Jake Butt said. “He wouldn’t be sticking his neck out there if he wasn’t confident in the work he’s done, and the work we’ve done. We want to be the guys that never back down from a challenge, and he represents that. We want to stand behind coach Harbaugh the same way he stands behind us.”

It’s an unorthodox way to ramp up the competitive culture at Michigan, by showing an aggressive edge in any way possible. And it only works if Harbaugh is genuine about it – I think he is – and if Michigan truly is talented enough to back it up.

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We shall see, but the signs are impossible to ignore. You saw evidence in Harbaugh’s first season, when Michigan went 10-3 with less flash and more flexing. The offensive line returns four starters and the defensive line should be loaded, especially when the rest of the touted 2016 class and No. 1 recruit Rashan Gary arrive.

There are standouts in the secondary and at receiver, and there’s Jabrill Peppers, so dynamic he could fill holes at multiple positions. The tight ends are enormous, from Butt to 6-6, 291-pound Tyrone Wheatley Jr. to 6-7 Ian Bunting to 6-7 Zach Gentry, a former quarterback. We focus on the quarterback battle, rightly so, and it’s between Wilton Speight, John O’Korn and Shane Morris, possibly in that order at the moment, although Harbaugh isn’t ready to say.

Even with uncertainty at quarterback and linebacker, Michigan will show up on some preseason top-10 lists. So will Ohio State, with Michigan State not far behind. The powers remain the powers until beaten, and the Wolverines haven’t broken that grip, losing seven of eight to the Spartans and 11 of 12 to the Buckeyes.

Beyond great talent and staffs, what do Ohio State and Michigan State possess? Confident, respected leadership in Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio, full of swagger and sneer. Harbaugh has shown the same throughout his career, and he stood Saturday not far from where his infamous scuffle with Lions coach Jim Schwartz occurred. Years before, he agitated USC’s Pete Carroll when his Stanford team was on the rise.

Harbaugh has been nothing but respectful toward the Spartans, but has taken a couple shots at the Buckeyes, including the celebrated one a few days ago. After Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith suggested the Buckeyes didn’t need a spring trip to Florida because they weren’t “jump-starting” their program, Harbaugh seethed. Smith’s comment, in response to a question about Michigan’s Florida trip, was a relatively tame jab. To Harbaugh, it was reason to scrap, and he responded with a sniping tweet that referenced Ohio State’s 2011 violations: “Good to see Director Smith being relevant again after the tattoo fiasco. Welcome back!”

Smith apologized (although it was hardly necessary) and new Michigan AD Warde Manuel spoke briefly with Harbaugh and declared the dispute over. Harbaugh didn’t apologize (and it wasn’t necessary) and isn’t backing down.

“It felt like one got shot over our bow,” Harbaugh said Saturday. “It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. I waited a good eight, nine hours and figured they might consider that it could be construed a certain way toward our program. So when no explanation came, I thought it was time to fire one over their bow. Consider things even right now.”

That’s the classic response of a scrapper in a fight that’s been lopsided for a while. Don’t focus on the blows, including Ohio State’s 42-13 victory in Ann Arbor last year, but on the comeback. The real bout won’t take place until November, but a combatant defends himself whenever he can.

“Honestly, I kind of enjoy it,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “I’m glad to see my coach isn’t too worried about politics; he’s worried about getting the job done. What Ohio State’s AD said was pretty unprofessional. I didn’t think it should’ve went that far.”

It’s not even April, so it’s just talk right now. And Michigan’s bizarre schedule suggests the talking won’t end until later in the season. Six of the first seven games are at home, before road contests against Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State. Those are the clashes that will measure Michigan and define Harbaugh’s early run here.

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He had mostly positives to offer after Saturday’s practice, although he did lament his quarterbacks were making one big mistake a day. I get the impression quarterback is never an undecipherable puzzle for Harbaugh, evidenced by Jake Rudock’s development a year ago.

If Michigan is officially set to return to the highest level of competition, it will be decided in the trenches, where the big bodies are starting to stack up.

“I think we’re a better team than we were last year at this time,” Harbaugh said. “Whether that means you’re gonna win more games, it doesn’t always happen. We have a long road to hoe.  But I think it’s a better athletic team, there’s really good awareness, and a lot of times that lets the athletic ability come out. And I think we’re a more competitive team.”

Battles at many positions lead to better competition on Saturdays. Harbaugh doesn’t view his Twitter escapades as competition, and they’re really not. Drawing attention is good for recruiting and fun for fans. It follows that if you willingly make yourself a target, you might have the means to back it up.