Jim Harbaugh sat in the bowels of the Citrus Bowl after his team’s 41-7 undressing of Florida last Friday, gushing about the NFL prospects of his seniors.
Starting center Graham Glasgow, Harbaugh said, could be a first-round pick. Jake Rudock, as evidenced by his performance in the second half of Michigan’s season, has NFL talent in Harbaugh’s eyes as well. Safety Jarrod Wilson does, too.
Harbaugh’s presence, in all likelihood, has increased their chances greatly. He molded numerous low-level recruits into NFL draft picks at Stanford, and he worked with the highest level of NFL talent with the San Francisco 49ers, whom he led to the Super Bowl a mere three years ago.
But this experience, helping this group and coming back to his alma mater, was Harbaugh’s favorite in football. He thinks many of his players felt the same way about this past season.
“Just being in our locker room, I can tell you this: I don’t know … what word to describe it other than if you could have been there with us in the locker room, you would have noticed that guys like being on our ball team,” Harbaugh said. “We’re on a ball team. It’s the Michigan Wolverine football team. And we like being on that ball team. And I know there are guys in that locker room that really like … (they’re) happy they’re on a ball team and glad it’s this one and like what we got going on.”
It seems clear that most of the starters and regular players love suiting up for Harbaugh. James Ross said most of the Wolverines would run through a brick wall for their coach after Michigan defeated Penn State in November. Rudock and De’Veon Smith, sitting next to Harbaugh during his press conference after the Citrus Bowl, agreed with him that this was their best season in football.
But there are 120 players on the Michigan football team’s roster. Did Harbaugh’s arrival, one year later, help the players who hardly played, aren’t on scholarship and could never dream of reaching the NFL?
Take senior tight end Michael Jocz. He has a 3.97 GPA in mechanical engineering and won the team’s award for best student-athlete this season. He’s smarter than most non-football playing nerds on campus. He probably doesn’t need Harbaugh’s tutelage or Michigan football to be successful in life (though becoming an engineer would be another interesting offseason venture for Harbaugh).
Jocz is way down the depth chart at tight end and has hardly seen consistent playing time throughout his Michigan career. He puts in just as much effort as the starters by working his tail off in practice, but doesn’t get the reward of playing frequently on Saturdays.
He calls himself a fifth-generation Michigan fan and has rooted for the Wolverines for his entire life. Jocz has seen tough times and a losing season as a player. He kept going — even when it might’ve been easier to just focus on school — to continue his dream of playing Michigan football.
This year, he feels like the program he loves has its dignity back. And Jocz feels like he and his fellow walk-ons have a role in that, too. Harbaugh has helped the guys who don’t play very much feel like they have a role in the group’s success, just like the starters do.
“As a team, we do a good job of knowing that by helping each other out, we help everybody out,” Jocz said Wednesday. “Not just, ‘If I get better, I get my turn.’ It’s all about the team effort and being together as one, and that’s how we’re going to win football games.”
Take Brad Anlauf. He’s a senior wide receiver on this year’s football team. If you know his name, it’s probably from his stint as a walk-on on the men’s basketball team in the 2013-14 season, when the Wolverines won the Big Ten championship and made it all the way to the Elite Eight. But Anlauf has been on the football team for his other three years at Michigan, his game days spent largely on the sideline.
In a way, Harbaugh’s arrival brought his football career new life. Harbaugh, famously, is all about competition. In the spring, he insisted the quarterback position would sort itself out, that the best player would step up and make the plays. That creed of open competition extended to everyone on the team, not just the guys on scholarship.
Sure, no walk-ons carved out regular starting roles on the team this season. Former walk-ons Joe Kerridge, Kenny Allen and Ryan and Graham Glasgow are all on scholarship now, and they contributed regularly. But under Harbaugh, the rest of the walk-ons felt like they had a chance to earn playing time, too.
“There’s no sense of entitlement around Coach Harbaugh,” Anlauf said. “If his own son, eventually, if he comes and plays here, he’s not going to give him an edge over another kid playing at that position.”
Take Shaun Austin. You’ve probably never heard his name. He’s a senior walk-on safety, and he didn’t get into a game this year. He lives with other football players, including Chris Wormley and Tom Strobel, guys who see the field regularly.
Under Harbaugh, he feels like he’s just as important as those guys, playing time be damned.
“It’s cool to not take a backseat to someone else, at least get a chance,” Austin said.
Austin gets hit every day in practice, and he went into every game knowing he probably wouldn’t be needed. He’s a political science major and hopes to go to law school someday. Playing for Harbaugh won’t help him get to the NFL or achieve some wild football fantasy. He admits he’s a little crazy for putting himself through the grind. So why does he do it?
“It’s easy to play for the guys, I think that’s the biggest thing,” Austin said. “Even if you’re not doing it for yourself, there’s other guys you’ve grown close with over the years that make it easy to come out and play for them.”
Sounds like a ball team, indeed.
Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MaxACohen.