Versatility is a key trait among college football players — and the Michigan football team embraces it.
Players like senior cornerback Mike Sainristil and junior linebacker Kalel Mullings have spent time playing on both sides of the ball and succeeded at multiple positions. Flexibility among players is commonplace, with larger rosters encouraging them to move around the field if a position group has more or less depth.
What the Wolverines are doing this season that’s less common, however, is switching around members of their coaching staff. In particular, wide receivers coach Ron Bellamy and special teams and safeties coach Jay Harbaugh made jumps from overseeing safeties and tight ends, respectively.
While unusual, the strategy is representative of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s belief that less rigidity between the offensive and defensive staffs gives his team an edge.
“It’s really good from the standpoint of, if you’re a defensive coach, you really need to know how an offense would be attacking a defense,” Harbaugh said Monday. “And if you’re an offensive coach, you really need to understand how a defense is defending that same offense. So that works both ways — the value to that coach and the value to the unit.”
The Wolverines, and Harbaugh in particular, have been riding a high over the last year — so much so that it’s easy to forget how close he was to being fired just two offseasons ago. Ultimately, the administration opted for a renovation over a rebuild, choosing to keep Harbaugh but replace much of his former coaching staff with fresher faces. They hired 10 new coaches under the age of 40, many possessing Michigan roots.
Bellamy, a former Wolverine wide receiver and longtime coach at West Bloomfield High School, embodies this new, versatile makeup of assistants Harbaugh was looking for.
Joining the staff as a safeties coach was unconventional, but Bellamy’s unique perspective on the defense paid dividends as Michigan ranked as a top-30 defense in terms of pass efficiency allowed.
“He gave us key information about the receiving stance,” graduate defensive back Gemon Green said. “He actually played a big part in our defense last year.”
Bellamy’s time on the defensive staff had a two-fold effect. Last year, he could be the voice representing the offense to help aid coaches in their schemes. Now, he’s slid back over to the offensive side of the ball, but can provide his receivers with all the knowledge he soaked up last year on defense.
While Bellamy has handled his new position admirably so far, no coach epitomizes adaptability more than Jay Harbaugh, who happens to be Jim’s son. Since joining the staff in 2015, Jay has spent time coaching the running backs, special teams and tight ends. Now, he has taken over Bellamy’s role as safeties coach.
It’s a big ask to constantly move around, but it’s part of Jay’s coaching philosophy.
“As a staff, I think we try to do whatever it is we ask the players to do,” Jay said on Aug. 31. “Try to walk the walk of (doing) whatever is good for the team. And if it’s changing positions, because that’s going to make sense for everybody, then that’s great.”
Michigan’s turned it around in a major way the last two years, and the shifting nature of its assistant coaches has been crucial to that success.
It’s unorthodox, but Jim Harbaugh knows it’s changed the entire team for the better:
“It’s extremely helpful. It’s really, really good for the coach, same as it is for a player.”