Jim Harbaugh does not always give the appearance of someone who asks for things nicely.
During his final year with the San Francisco 49ers, rumors circulated that Harbaugh wore his players down with his high demands and dogged work ethic. Even now, on the sidelines of Michigan Stadium, it is not an uncommon sight to see Harbaugh yelling a referee’s ear into oblivion.
But sometimes, when it comes to asking things of his players, Harbaugh minds his manners. He brought up the subject during his weekly press conference Monday, when a reporter questioned the coach about the emergence of senior tight end A.J. Williams.
The natural inclination is that Williams’ success is the result of Harbaugh’s tight end-centric offense and that Williams has improved in the same manner many of Michigan’s other players have.
Monday, Harbaugh said there was more to it. He realized Williams needed to run faster, so Williams did what was natural: He lost some weight. But that wasn’t all that has fueled Williams’ increased role in the offense.
It came down to an innocuous question — a very polite one at that — that Harbaugh asked Williams:
“Please, will you run faster, A.J.?”
And so far, Williams has. He has had two receptions of more than 20 yards this season. His previous career long was 12 yards.
Through seven games this season, Williams has more catches (nine) than he did in his first three years at Michigan combined (five). He ranks fourth among Wolverines in receptions and receiving yards (99).
Harbaugh’s methodology of asking politely has paid dividends so far.
“Sometimes that works,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve seen it work before. ‘Will you please run faster?’ And then they do, so hope (Williams keeps) going in that direction, because he’s got it in him.”
Even the other part of Williams’ success, the one that didn’t have to do with Harbaugh minding his p’s and q’s, was the result of another soft-spoken comment from the fiery coach.
It came during spring practice, one of Harbaugh’s first, after Williams ran what he remembers as a stick rout. Harbaugh then commented on what he thought caused Williams’ lack of speed.
“He was just like, ‘A.J., I think you need to lose some weight,’ ” Williams said.
Williams, even as a senior who had established himself in the program, did not question the rhetoric of his new coach. He responded immediately.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I probably do,’ ” Williams replied.
So Williams did. He currently weighs 10 pounds less than his listed weight of 285 pounds.
Harbaugh arrived at Michigan with a great deal of success in developing tight ends, from Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener at Stanford to Vernon Davis in San Francisco. Well aware of this, Williams was willing to do whatever his coach asked.
In the past, Williams had been almost exclusively a blocking tight end, even in high school. He played offensive tackle his senior year and did not catch a single pass.
But now, in his senior year of college, Williams has caught the ball more than he ever has. Not just in college or his senior year of high school, but in his entire life. Having the ball in his hands did not feel natural at first, particularly after his 22-yard reception in the home opener against Oregon State.
“I was like, ‘This is weird,’ ” Williams said. “I was like, ‘Oh man, I can’t believe I just did that.’ ”
Four weeks later, when the Wolverines played Northwestern, Williams was Michigan’s leading receiver, with four receptions for 48 yards.
Williams, because of Harbaugh’s requests and the team’s success, says he is having more fun playing football than he has in his entire life.
But while Williams enjoys increased success, other players are still working on fulfilling the things Harbaugh requests of them.
The coach’s request of redshirt junior offensive lineman Kyle Kalis is lofty:
“Get all your blocks, don’t miss any blocks,” Kalis said Harbaugh tells him.
With just a slight hint of sarcasm, Kalis said he believes he has fulfilled Harbaugh’s wishes.
“Never miss any (blocks),” Kalis said. “Never. I’m always perfect.”