Jim Harbaugh and one of his many football influences watched from the sideline during Michigan’s game at Maryland on Saturday. Over the past nine months, Harbaugh has alluded to countless people who have helped him become Michigan’s head coach — just as many on the field as off of it.
Last week, he didn’t have to go far to get an outside perspective on his team’s 28-0 thrashing of the Terrapins. His brother, John — the head coach of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens — stood beside him at various points during the game.
Harbaugh has drawn from many people in his transformation of Michigan football from a 5-7 team that missed the postseason to a 4-1 power that ranks No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense.
Two weeks ago, after the Wolverines romped to a 31-0 victory over Brigham Young, Harbaugh admitted he borrowed a play John’s Ravens ran the week before for a touchdown. Against Maryland, redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson broke loose for a 66-yard touchdown run, and John Harbaugh said that play came from the Ravens, too.
Five weeks in, on a Michigan team with eight former NFL coaches, the league has made a sizable impact.
“I don’t know the percentage, but it has,” Harbaugh said Monday. “It’s there. … (I) enjoy watching it as a coach. You don’t feel like it’s stealing. It’s research. But yeah, there are a lot of good ideas that come from high school coaches, college coaches, pro coaches.”
Between coaches, schemes and formations, Michigan is starting to look more like a professional team. The eight former pro coaches have worked for a total of eight different teams. Harbaugh takes a screen pass from here and an end-around run from there until he has a viable approach.
“I think our offense is a little more of an NFL-style offense scheme-wise,” said sophomore offensive tackle Mason Cole. “Besides that, getting coached by NFL coaches, they’ve all been there. Just learning from those guys is an incredible experience.”
In little time, the Wolverines have entirely changed their appearance. And there’s still a lot more to come.
After Harbaugh took the Michigan job in late December, he didn’t waste time installing his vision. He didn’t wait for his first recruiting class to reshape the roster the way he wanted it. At Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers, his team was loaded with fullbacks and tight ends for his power running scheme. This year, the Wolverines have seven fullbacks (if you count fullback-tight end hybrid Henry Poggi), more than double the three they had last year.
Fifth-year senior Joe Kerridge, redshirt junior Bobby Henderson and senior Sione Houma returned. Nick Volk converted from linebacker, Poggi from defensive end. Sophomores Joe Beneducci and Deyanco Hardwick joined the team.
Several times this season, Michigan has lined up in tight sets with three men in the backfield, a somewhat rare formation, even in the NFL. Harbaugh’s influence created that opportunity.
It came straight from the NFL, too, because power fullbacks are a dying breed in college football. While the Wolverines have seven on their roster, 12 teams in the top-25 poll have zero. Just five other teams have three or more.
“I think it’s just a different style of football,” Cole said. “You don’t see that a lot in college football anymore. I think it’s good.”
One of the five fullback-heavy teams is Stanford, which Harbaugh built in a mold similar to the one he has started with Michigan. In between, he picked up tools in the NFL. When he reached the NFC Championship Game in each of his first three seasons in San Francisco, tight end Vernon Davis was in the top two on the team in receiving yards and touchdowns each year.
Dan Dierdorf, who now serves as the radio color commentator for Michigan football, was an All-American offensive lineman under Bo Schembechler from 1967 to 1970 and then a Hall of Famer for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1971 to 1983. He sees the similarities between Michigan’s style and a pro style from the broadcast booth.
“(Harbaugh) played quarterback his entire life. He coaches like he plays linebacker or he plays offensive guard,” Dierdorf said. “He coaches knowing the value of winning the battle at the line of scrimmage.”
Before he coached in the pros, Harbaugh developed future pro tight ends in Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz at Stanford, and he’s on his way to doing the same at Michigan. The day before fall camp started, he called junior tight end Jake Butt one of the best NFL tight end prospects he has ever coached.
Under Harbaugh, the Wolverines have eight tight ends (plus Poggi), up from six last year, but their development has allowed them to use three on the field at once. In the top 25, only Alabama and Mississippi possess more tight ends than Michigan.
In January, Harbaugh hired another familiar face to coach the tight ends — his son, Jay. An offensive assistant for his uncle John in Baltimore for the previous three years, Jay has emulated his father’s NFL tendencies.
“You certainly watch, and you tend to know who does what well,” Jay Harbaugh said. “Some teams are better with tight ends than others. Some teams do really good stuff with backs out of the backfield, so if you’re looking for a certain idea, you know which teams to look at, whether it’s third down or red zone. There’s certainly some of that.
“We’re open to getting ideas from anywhere.”
The increased focus on tight ends has put Butt in the spotlight. In five games, he has 19 catches for 234 yards — both second on the team — and a touchdown.
Other stats tell even more about Michigan’s new approach: Butt has been targeted 5.8 times per game this season, which ranks 10th in the country and first in the Big Ten among tight ends, according to rotogrinders.com. He has also taken 19.08 percent of the receiving workload, sixth in the country, and his eight catches in the season opener at Utah were the most by a Michigan tight end since 1995.
Those numbers give the Harbaughs, father and son, reason to believe in their scheme.
“I think that from the get-go (the tight ends) were really, really excited to be a part of this team, and I think it’s obvious why, with the opportunities in terms of playing time,” Jay Harbaugh said. “And the diversity of assignments and responsibility is kind of unparalleled at this level. No matter what anybody says, it’s really not close in terms of what we ask them to do.”
It’s one thing to focus on the pro style, but to execute it, a team has to have the players and the coaches, but it also has to watch the film — which Michigan does, at length. The Wolverines have spoken about watching tape from different sources, even high-school games, to gain ideas.
“Shoot, I’ve watched a lot of everybody,” Jay Harbaugh said. “The (Kansas City) Chiefs have done some nice stuff recently. I would say probably them the last couple weeks. They’ve done some pretty good stuff. (The Carolina) Panthers as well, and then the (New England) Patriots are always good.”
If that’s where Harbaugh’s focus lies, then Michigan’s tight ends coach’s intentions are in the right place. The Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, the Panthers’ Greg Olsen and the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce rank first, second and eighth, respectively, among NFL tight ends in targets per game. If the Wolverines’ trends continue, their tight ends could soon be in similar positions.
Michigan also takes ideas from other college teams — when it watched West Virginia and Maryland play to scout the Terrapins, for instance. But the Wolverines are so similar to some NFL teams and so different from some college teams that sometimes, it doesn’t make as much sense.
“I think our offense lends itself to looking at NFL tape more than other colleges,” Jay Harbaugh said. “Probably just because it makes more sense for us to, because there’s more carryover in terms of protections and formations.”
The other positions have pro applications as well. The defense uses multiple formations, frequently rotating between the 3-4 and the 4-3. There, Dierdorf sees shades of the NFL.
Fifth-year senior Jake Rudock, a graduate transfer from Iowa, where he started for two years, also has a big responsibility. Michigan sends multiple plays in from the sideline, forcing Rudock to call one at the line.
“You go to the line and everyone on offense is prepared to run one of several different plays,” Dierdorf said. “It requires a lot of coordination, a lot of smart people listening and anticipating what they’re going to hear from the quarterback in terms of what play they’re going to run.”
Whatever the most important factor may be, the NFL focus has put the Wolverines in a position to contend for the Big Ten title in a year no one thought they could.
If Michigan hoped NFL concepts would help give the team a leg up on the competition, that’s just what they have done.
Correction Appended: Dierdorf played for the St. Louis Cardinals, not the St. Louis Rams as the article previously stated.