Sunday, about 10 minutes before noon, Jim Harbaugh walked into the Junge Center in Ann Arbor and stepped onto the podium wearing his classic khakis, blue and yellow cleats and his new Jordan Brand sweater.
He was already out of breath.
This is the busiest time of the year for Harbaugh, and he may be running around often over the next four weeks as he scrambles to prepare the Michigan football team for the 2016 season. His media day press conference Sunday previewed the opening of training camp, which begins Monday. It’s one of Harbaugh’s favorite days of the year, as he has said several times. As he almost always does, he compared it to being born into the world.
When Harbaugh’s team steps onto the field, the expectations that have been building since a 10-3 finish in 2015 will finally be measured against reality.
“Those outside expectations, perceptions, they do rise and fall with the day, sometimes by the hour,” Harbaugh said. “As I said before, our expectations are going to be very high, and as a coach, my expectations are very high for tomorrow’s practice. The meetings, the expectations, the drills and practice, scrimmaging, the competition. I have very high expectations for that tomorrow.”
The Wolverines have three weeks of training camp before they go into game preparation the week of Aug. 29 before the season opener against Hawaii on Sept. 3 at Michigan Stadium.
Over that time, they’ll have several position battles to solve. The most prominent, of course, is at quarterback, where redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight, redshirt junior John O’Korn and redshirt junior Shane Morris will battle for the job. Michigan also lost all three of its longtime starting linebackers and must choose four defensive linemen from a pool of as many as nine.
Still, the Wolverines have far less uncertainty now than they did at this time last year. At Harbaugh’s media day presser last season, he still had high expectations but admitted that he had many questions to answer.
While the standards will be lofty again, Harbaugh now knows that they’re within reach.
“Attitude, mentality, set their goals high,” Harbaugh said. “Dream big and realize that all those can be accomplished once the work is realized. If people aren’t making fun of you for what your dreams are and what your goals are, then you haven’t set those goals high enough.”
Outside of the quarterback, Michigan has a stable of healthy running backs, the most experienced offensive line it has had in recent memory and three proven receiving threats. The offense was the key unit at times last season, especially in the second half.
“Now it’s really exciting because you can build off of last year without taking on this whole approach of too much newness,” said passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch. “It really can be how much better can we get now that you can show them film of Michigan people doing it rather than other people doing it.”
Meanwhile, the defense, one of the best in the country last season, goes to work under new defensive coordinator Don Brown, who will build off the progress from this spring in implementing his 4-3 defense. He used the terms “end” and “anchor” to describe the linemen outside the two tackles — a change in terminology from last year, when Michigan played with one end and one linebacker-defensive end called the buck.
Behind the line, he’ll break in three traditional linebackers, the mike (middle), sam (strong-side) and will (weak-side), and have them in many different positions.
“This game is an aggressive game,” Brown said. “We’re going to play it fast, play it on their side of the line of scrimmage at times. At times, we’ll play solid base defense as well, but we pick the time of when we do both. And you have to be ready for both. That’s really the whole theme — we can play a base, or we can pressure, but we’re not just one or just the other.”
In the 19 months that Harbaugh has coached at Michigan, he has made no effort to hide his enthusiasm — for the school, for his team and for coaching. Sunday was no exception, as he prepared to embark on a long preparation period. Last year at media day, he famously declared that his team was going down into a “submarine,” shutting out the outside world in an effort to maximize its efficiency in training. While he gave no indication Sunday of doing the same thing, he did hint at Big Ten Media Days two weeks ago that he would hold a similar training camp.
“It’s where the team’s forged,” Harbaugh said Sunday. “Under the sun, in the August heat, sun shaping the body and carving the mind. Very excited about it.
“Can’t wait to get out on the field and compete. Watch the guys have at it.”
And then he stepped off the podium, left the Junge Center and went about the next order of business. Harbaugh doesn’t make much time for rest anyway, but the time for that is over now.