Standing beneath the floodlights at Oak Park High School, Donovan Edwards’s smile turned stoic. The topic of conversation had shifted from West Bloomfield’s season-opening 39-0 win to his recruiting process. Edwards knew it was coming. Recruiting questions are part of the territory when you’re a consensus top-five running back in the country, playing 30 miles from the school that’s made you its top remaining prospect in the class.
But that didn’t mean Edwards had to like it. His sentences turned curt, his interest in the conversation evaporated. After all, it was only September and Edwards had already announced his plans to commit in December. He wouldn’t even reveal a final list for another month.
Then, amid the slew of generic recruitment questions, Edwards was asked about Jay Harbaugh, Michigan’s running backs coach and his lead recruiter. Instantly, energy returned to his voice.
“What makes him unique, he’s just a very great guy,” Edwards said. That afternoon, he had called Jay to discuss the game and reinforce pointers to help with his yards after contact. The tips were nothing new — he’s known Jay since eighth grade and the advice has been coming ever since. But the season opener was important to Edwards. And in those moments, he turns to Jay.
“Over the four years he’s been recruiting me, we’ve been every single year, we’ve just been going up and up and up as this relationship has been going on,” Edwards said then.
On Wednesday, that relationship culminated in Edwards’ commitment to Michigan. As the 44th-ranked player in the country, per 247Sports’ composite, he’s the second-highest ranked commit in the Wolverines’ 10th-ranked 2021 class, behind five-star quarterback J.J. McCarthy. Together, they form Michigan’s highest-ranked duo of skill position recruits in the Jim Harbaugh era, providing hope on the back of a 2-4 season.
Without Jay, Edwards wouldn’t be heading to Ann Arbor. That’s the power of the 31-year-old head coach’s son for whom the cries of favoritism ring so loud that his Twitter bio reads, “I relish a good nepotism tweet.”
“He definitely has a lot of respect and a lot of responsibility with his last name,” Beau Walker, who worked with Jay as a student manager at Oregon State, said. “But at the same time, he’s his own person and he’s blazing his own trail.”
The thing about those accusations, though, is there’s some truth to them. When knee injuries ended Jay’s high school football career, he decided to go into coaching.
Naturally, the first step was getting involved at Oregon State. But freshmen are seldom able to become team managers in their first fall on campus, because managers need to be in place by mid-summer. That problem doesn’t exist when your dad played under Mike Riley, the Beavers’ coach at the time, for two seasons in the NFL.
“The coaching profession, a lot like other professions, it’s who you know,” Walker said. “And we were both fortunate to have connections to coach Riley.”
But in the coaching world, connections are just that. Undoubtedly, Jay’s first job after college as a quality control coach for the Baltimore Ravens was a product of his uncle, John, being the Ravens’ head coach. It’s no coincidence that he arrived at Michigan in 2015, the same year Jim was hired.
Jay understands that. He also knew from the start, though, that family ties alone couldn’t be the foundation of his coaching career.
“He tried to be his own coach and tried to learn and do it his own way,” Danny Langsdorf, Oregon State’s offensive coordinator from 2005-2013, said. “And I thought that helped him develop and grow. He didn’t just try to ride his dad’s coattails. He tried to do his own thing and learn from different people and I appreciated that about him.”
As an underclassman, Jay began taking on tasks typically reserved for graduate assistants. While most student managers are reserved for behind-the-scenes grunt work, the Beavers’ staff quickly began trusting him to break down film and draw playbook pictures.
“You don’t just hand anybody that job, that responsibility,” Langsdorf said. “They gotta be able to earn that and show that they can handle it at a high level. Those are important jobs and if you got guys that can’t handle it then you’re just wasting time and you’re doubling up your work.”
Part of that, again, ties into Jay’s upbringing. The son of a high school coach himself, Walker acknowledges the advantage of early exposure to football. You’re able to see the game a certain way earlier, he says.
That was certainly the case for Jay — Langsdorf and Riley wouldn’t have trusted him otherwise. More impressive than his football knowledge, though, was his ability to forge relationships with the players, according to those who knew him in Corvallis. Oftentimes, there’s a disconnect between players and managers. That wasn’t the case for Jay, who lived with players throughout his time on campus.
That too, is made easier when you grow up around football. Between when Jay was born in 1989 and when he graduated high school in 2008, Jim played for six teams and coached three. Before he left home, Jay had more experience in football locker rooms than most NFL retirees.
And at Oregon State, that mattered.
“With his dad’s playing career when Jay was young, he was in the locker room or around players a lot,” Walker said. “That … really helped him be able to relate to college students.”
Eight years after graduating Oregon State, that’s still Jay’s biggest strength.
He’s developed as a coach too, impressing Tim Drevno, Jim’s first offensive coordinator at Michigan, with the diversity of his drills. “He was a guy that wanted to be a great coach,” Drevno told The Daily. But the ability to forge relationships remains at the crux of what he does. It’s how he maximizes his players’ talent, whether as a tight ends’ coach when he first arrived in Ann Arbor or as a running backs’ coach now.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s how he’s turned himself into an invaluable part of Michigan’s recruiting process — the type of coach who can transcend a year of disastrous on-field results.
“The biggest thing that the guys all say was it’s not always about football with Jay Harbaugh,” Ron Bellamy, Edwards’s coach at West Bloomfield said. “He wants to get to know you as a person. I think that’s a strong quality to have in recruitment.”
For Jim, it’s the realization of everything he’s wanted Jay to be since he decided to be a coach on the fields of St. Augustine High School more than a decade ago. According to a 2014 story in The Mercury News, he once asked Jay if people gave him a hard time about working for John, “automatically (looking) at that as the reason (he) got the job.”
“It’s my responsibility to not give them the opportunity to confirm that suspicion,” Jay responded.
With Edwards’s commitment, he further quieted any remaining naysayers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.