Niyo: With players’ help, Harbaugh shows he can be flexible

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh

Ann Arbor — Some changes they can see. Others they can feel. Still others they can hear or even smell and taste.

But rooted in this sense of optimism emanating from Schembechler Hall about this upcoming football season at Michigan — one that finally kicks off Saturday night with a nationally televised debut at Notre Dame — is the open embrace of change, from the top on down.

This was no regime change, mind you. Not even close. But in ways big and small, audible and edible, the transformation is undeniable, players say. And whether it’s Jim Harbaugh asking for more hugs, or players flexing newfound muscles in ways that might seem trivial to outsiders, the bottom line is the communication seems better.

There is strength in numbers, and that’s definitely a part of what’s behind all this, from Harbaugh’s 1-5 record against his chief rivals or the 36 sacks the offensive line allowed in 2017 to the hundreds of pounds the players have added collectively over the last nine months, aided by a new strength and conditioning program and a revamped training table.

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But it’s also an emotional connection that seems to be getting stronger. And if this season turns out the way everyone in Ann Arbor hopes, that’ll be part of the story, too.

‘What do I need to do?’

It started with a team meeting not long after a disappointing 2017 season ended with an ugly loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

And what followed was an exchange that reinforced one idea — “That he is actually here for us,” senior safety Tyree Kinnel said, “and maybe he didn’t tell us right away” — while soliciting several others.

“He was open: ‘What do I need to do?’” running back Karan Higdon said. “How often do you see that from a coach, asking his players?”

Particularly one like Harbaugh, whose old-school reputation — the two tight-end sets, the four-hour practices, and so on — was hailed by nostalgic fans as he returned to his old school in 2015. Ask Harbaugh and he’ll tell you this really is nothing new.

“I don’t think I’ve changed too much,” he insisted Monday at his weekly press conference. “I always look at things, wherever ideas come from, that could be better for the individual player or the ballclub. Does it help us or not? That’s what I always use to judge it by.”

Still, if you ask newly-elected captains like Higdon and Kinnel, or the recently-retired Grant Newsome, who last week called off his comeback from a catastrophic knee injury, you’ll hear a slightly different story.

For all the talk of the team growing, Newsome said, “I think he grew a lot as well in the offseason. He was receptive to guys on the team, and some of the feelings that guys had. Not that he hadn’t previously, but I think he made a concerted effort to get with some of the older guys in the program who’d been around and said, ‘What do we need to do differently as a program to get us over that hump?’”

The answers came in various forms, some privately — Chase Winovich shared his feelings even before he’d decided to bypass the NFL Draft — and others en masse. Because as senior wideout Grant Perry noted, “It’s definitely easier when you go as a group.”

And, he adds, “You’ve gotta have a reason and a solution to it if you’re gonna bring a problem to Coach.”

But either way, you’ve got to have a healthy dialogue, and that’s where all this got started. Winovich alerted Harbaugh to issues the players had with the training-table offerings, and problems that stemmed from an offseason workout program that stressed competition but didn’t carry much weight with some of his teammates.

Not ‘rocket science’

Harbaugh found a solution by replacing his longtime strength coach, Kevin Tolbert, with one of the nation’s best in Ben Herbert and then empowering him to bring in a four-person staff that includes a full-time performance dietician, Abigail O’Connor. Already, “there’s been a night and day difference,” Harbaugh said, and it’s easy to see what he means. Suffice to say, the Wolverines are cutting a much different profile these days.

“Coach Harbaugh has provided the vehicle for us,” Winovich said, and now it’s up to the players to drive the message home, beginning Saturday night in South Bend.

At the same time, since Harbaugh’s fond of Yogi Berra quotes, here’s one that applied to last season: “If you don't know where you’re going, you'll end up someplace else.”

That certainly was true of Michigan’s offense in 2017. While the run game got lost in a zone scheme before finally rediscovering its powerful roots, the pass protection was a disaster from start to finish.

At times, the linemen looked so confused by basic defensive twists, the quarterbacks felt like stunt men. And as a result, Harbaugh was forced to use three different starters in Big Ten play, proving the law of diminishing returns in the process.

Everyone realizes that can’t happen again, and Harbaugh went out of his way this offseason to ensure that it won’t.

Harbaugh replaced longtime assistant Tim Drevno — and Greg Frey — with a veteran line coach in Ed Warinner. His success at Ohio State and elsewhere speaks for itself, but so did some of the conversations players and coaches shared after last season. And when Warinner told his linemen before spring practice he wouldn’t ask them to start Calculus until they could all pass Algebra I, he’d aced his first test.

“I felt like before we would go straight to rocket science and try to cover everything possible in every meeting,” said junior Stephen Spanellis, who, coincidentally, had the highest GPA on the team last year.

‘Not as much going on’

Now it’s a much different story. Play calls are shorter, and when they break the huddle — something new for starting quarterback Shea Patterson, who ran a no-huddle offense at Mississippi — the checks are less likely to bounce, junior guard Ben Bredeson says, because “when we get on the field, we’ll only have basically one check.”

The idea is to play faster, rather than trying to fool everybody, including themselves.

“I just think the simplicity of the offense has helped a ton,” Bredeson said. “There’s just not as much going on.”

Actually, there’s still plenty going on here. And we're about to find out how much of this is just the usual preseason noise and how much of it is real progress.

But if you listen closely, you can even hear the change they're all talking about. At the start of every practice, Harbaugh has given in to another of the players’ requests, letting them blast music during stretching before every practice. Something other than Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” if you can believe it.

“Nah, he’s not dancing,” Kinnel said, when asked if Harbaugh had gone completely off the deep end. “And we try not to dance in front of him.”

No sense pushing it too far with all these changes, he added, laughing, “Or the music will be gone.”