In the minutes before the Michigan football team began its rout of Brigham Young this weekend, an unfamiliar face flashed across the Michigan Stadium video boards as an offensive starter. He had been a defensive lineman as recently as last season, but now he would be blocking on the other side of the ball.
Henry Poggi never expected to be running out of the tunnel as an offensive starter for the Wolverines. The redshirt sophomore arrived on campus before the 2013 season as a blue-chip defensive line prospect, a cornerstone of a Michigan recruiting class that was ranked sixth in the nation by ESPN.
The arc of his career did not go as planned. The 6-foot-4, 273-pound Poggi redshirted his freshman year and played in just six games during his second season. The arrival of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh this past offseason offered the opportunity for a fresh start, but that, too, threw a wrench in Poggi’s career.
Soon after Harbaugh’s arrival, the new coach told Poggi that he wanted him to play on both sides of the ball as a fullback/tight end hybrid during spring practice. Poggi was initially disappointed. He had played a similar position in high school, but did not anticipate the same task in college.
So Poggi did what he often does in times of need: He called his father, Biff.
Biff Poggi is different from most fathers of Michigan football players — he is a coach himself. The elder Poggi has led the Gilman School football team in Baltimore for more than a decade.
The Greyhounds have been a powerhouse throughout his tenure, entering this season as the No. 3 team in USA Today’s Northeast regional preseason football rankings. Poggi and his two older brothers played for their father.
The coaching philosophy of Biff Poggi and his coaching staff, as documented in the book “Season of Life,” by Jeffrey Marx, is one in which nurture takes precedence over screaming, and kindness overrules it all. Those guidelines were not always applicable to the coach’s son.
“We’d be having a bad practice, and instead of yelling at our team, he’d just kind of yell at me,” Henry Poggi said.
Despite the extra flak, Poggi said that he would not trade the experience of playing for his father for the world. It was natural, then, that he called Biff Poggi to discuss his position change.
Even before the phone call, both Poggis were aware of Harbaugh’s past success at moving players around the field. Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, widely considered the best cornerback in the NFL, had played wide receiver before Harbaugh switched his position at Stanford. And Harbaugh told Poggi about San Francisco 49ers fullback Bruce Miller — a defensive lineman in college who became a second-team All-Pro fullback under Harbaugh in San Francisco.
By the end of his conversation with his father about the possible position change, Poggi was sold. He realized that he trusted his new coach.
“Pretty much whatever he says, I think he knows a little bit more about football than me,” Poggi said. “So if he thinks I’ll do well there, I was all for it.”
Eventually, before the start of fall camp, Harbaugh told Poggi that he wanted him to play offense full time. He felt it was a disservice to Poggi to play him both ways, because he wasn’t progressing as well as he would if he focused on only one spot.
So far, Harbaugh’s experiment has been successful. Poggi has played consistently enough to see the field on a regular basis.
Describing his role is a different matter. Even Poggi himself doesn’t know exactly what to call his position. There are plays when he lines up in the backfield as a fullback, and other plays when he lines up as a tight end.
“Kind of like an H-back … fullback, tight end, I kind of play all three,” Poggi said. “I don’t really know what to call it. H-back is probably the best thing.”
Whatever position he was playing, Poggi made the first reception of his career on the first play from scrimmage in Saturday’s game. It was no sight to behold — he fell to the ground with the ball in his clutches when there was open field in front of him — but the two-yard gain still represented a milestone, one he never would have been able to earn as a defensive lineman.
There are times when Poggi misses his defensive lineman friends, with whom he spent the first two years of his career. Now, he seeks advice from fifth-year senior Joe Kerridge — who, Poggi jokes, is old enough to be a coach (Kerridge is 23 years old).
There’s always his dad, too. Poggi says they talk every day, even when there aren’t pressing position changes at hand. Despite his high school coaching schedule, Biff Poggi has made it to two of Michigan’s three home games this season.
Poggi will return to his home state this weekend, when the Wolverines travel to play Maryland. He expects at least 18 of his family members and friends to be in attendance, and a few of his former high school teammates play for the Terrapins.
They will see the new version of Poggi, the one who still gets to “smash skulls,” but in a different fashion. Poggi is under no illusion that his transformation is complete, and he said that he needs to work on both catching the ball and moving around it, instead of toward it.
“My biggest thing coming in here was I wanted to do whatever I could to help Michigan win, no matter what my role was,” Poggi said.
His position change, however little he expected it, provides him that opportunity. Serving as the latest example of a successful Harbaugh position change would be a nice bonus.