Ann Arbor — Gradually, perhaps clarity is forming. Behind the brick walls of Schembechler Hall, new people are embracing new roles. Players talk of freshness and fun, reflected in renewed enthusiasm from the top.
From confusion to clarity? That’s clearly Jim Harbaugh’s offseason plan, as he revamped his coaching staff, revised duties, and engaged in needed self-reflection that he says rejuvenated him and his team.
He changed things, which was an important step, although it’ll be a while before we know how much things have really changed. The Wolverines still don’t know if prized transfer quarterback Shea Patterson will be eligible, a protracted process complicated by Mississippi’s objections to the waiver request. Whispers from practice suggest Patterson looks like the elusive playmaker he’s purported to be, but there won’t be a behind-the-curtains glimpse, as Michigan canceled its spring game Saturday because of weather concerns.
There’s no actual evidence yet of improvement on offense, but at least the words and actions match. Harbaugh vowed serious re-evaluation after the Wolverines went 8-5, and he followed through by making tough decisions. It’s too early to forecast differences on the field, but if mood matters, there are differences in the building.
“Great spring practice so far, the energy’s been great, the competition outstanding,” Harbaugh said Wednesday. “Progress has been real good, people are really asserting themselves. It’s exciting.”
Harbaugh has been upbeat, although not as visible as past off-seasons, and I figure that’s by design. He’s not sparring with contemporaries on Twitter these days or making White House visits, and if there’s an unwritten message, it’s probably this: More help, less hype.
By the time last season ended in an ugly 26-19 Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina, the offense was a mess. It couldn’t have been easy for Harbaugh to replace longtime assistant Tim Drevno, the offensive coordinator and line coach who became the running backs coach at USC, but it was necessary. Two other assistants departed — Greg Frey to Florida State and Brian Smith to Rice.
Multiple staff changes
Those are telling signs of Harbaugh’s introspection. He also brought in a touted strength coach, Ben Herbert, to replace Kevin Tolbert, who’d been with Harbaugh since his Stanford and 49ers days. Two high-profile assistants — offensive line coach Ed Warinner and former Florida head coach Jim McElwain, who will lead the receivers (for now) — were added. Two more new assistants — Sherrone Moore and Al Washington — bring youthful energy.
Of course with Harbaugh, well-known for creative chaos, clarity is seldom fully reached. Dan Enos was hired in December as wide receivers coach — and perhaps offensive coordinator, although it wasn’t announced as such — and later bolted for Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama.
It’s still unclear who will call the plays, with Harbaugh labeling it a “collaborative process.” Drevno mostly handled running plays last season and Pep Hamilton dealt with the passing game, with Harbaugh overseeing all of it. While Don Brown is in charge of what should be another stout defense, the offensive staff’s responsibilities have always been complicated, and have to be fixed.
Everything was further complicated last season by Wilton Speight’s injury, and then by John O’Korn’s struggles behind a weak offensive line. When Brandon Peters finally got a shot, he too was battered.
The offensive line supposedly has performed better in practice and Harbaugh has raved about sophomore center Cesar Ruiz and others, but it remains a major question, along with quarterback. If Patterson isn’t eligible, it’s assumed Peters would start, although redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey could push him.
Players say they’ve seen a different Harbaugh, open and engaging, although still quirky. In the aftermath of a negative season, he’s been a picture of positivity, which began in a team meeting shortly after the bowl game.
“We know we went 8-5 and that’s like a chip on our shoulders, because we know everybody wants to see us fail,” said defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour, who has had a dominant spring, by most accounts. “There’s been a lot of changes in the building for the good. Harbaugh just wants us to be closer as a team, and when you’re closer as a team, it shows on the field.”
Harbaugh seemed detached at times last season, less prone to emotional bursts, good or bad, and it generally was chalked up to a hands-off approach with a young team. I think he recognized the flaw and is trying to adapt, and players say he’s embraced them more, literally and figuratively.
“(Harbaugh) has been more personal with the guys, more approachable,” running back Karan Higdon said earlier this spring. “Coach is a football guru, and he’s been so focused on the game, and now he’s taking a step back and continuing to build stronger relationships with the players. He changed our culture, changed our atmosphere around the facility, and it’s been great.”
Herbert, the new strength coach, has made an immediate impact too. Other changes have been cosmetic but notable — training table meals altered, a new weight room unveiled, practice schedules more flexible.
“I feel a lot of things going in the right direction right now,” Ruiz said. “Football’s easy when you’re having fun, and it’s fun because you know what you’re doing.”
There’s a telling glimpse at last season’s periodic disarray in the Amazon documentary just released, “All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines.” It’s a compelling behind-the-scenes look at a disappointing campaign, and the unpleasantness isn’t sanitized.
The second episode in the eight-part series focused on the opener against Florida in Dallas, when Speight threw two interceptions returned for touchdowns. As the Wolverines prepared to take the field for the second half, Speight and O’Korn looked confused as to who would go back in, with Hamilton, from the press box, finally relaying the word to Speight.
The Wolverines rallied to win the game but their offense didn’t jell all year. Before they can find clarity this season, Harbaugh needed to adjust, to clear their heads and clean the slate.
“It’s been a lot of work, and maybe that’s what rejuvenated me,” he said at the start of spring practice. “I feel great about all aspects of the program right now. Probably the best analogy I can think of is, you plow the fields and expose what’s good and what’s not good, and then you go about fixing it.”
Practice field plowed, new seeds planted. It’ll be interesting to see what grows, and how long it takes.