ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jay Harbaugh asked lots of questions of his players in his first year as running backs coach at Michigan in 2017.
Sometimes, he questioned his players more than they questioned him. Harbaugh asked questions because he wanted to learn what worked best for him as a coach and an instructor.
Harbaugh enters his second year as Michigan’s running backs coach after two years as tight ends coach. This spring, Harbaugh credits his players for helping him improve at his job.
“Just going into the second year, it’s been fun to have more time with those guys and I’m just trying to do my best to serve them, and to help them get to where they want to go,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh, senior running back Karan Higdon said, entered this spring with a better understanding of each player’s personality, his strengths and his weaknesses — and what would benefit the growth of each player.
“He is more knowledgeable about us,” Higdon said. “Having more time with us and learning characteristics about us as backs and as a unit. He’s been able to implement some different things for each individual. It’s been able to help us in the right direction.”
This spring, Harbaugh has noticed in Higdon and junior Chris Evans that their pass protection is stronger. They’re learning route details better, something that Harbaugh said running backs typically don’t get to learn much of because they simply don’t have the time to do it. Harbaugh also has seen his players make fewer mistakes as spring practices have progressed.
The familiarity between Harbaugh and his running backs has improved, too, from his first year coaching the position to his second year.
“You’re not feeling each other out or figuring out, ‘What’s the expectation,’ or ‘How is this guy going to react?’ ” said Harbaugh, who is coach Jim Harbaugh’s oldest son. “So, maybe there’s a little bit of a head start in that regard because we have a level of trust and understanding between myself and the players. You probably get off to a better start that way.”
Harbaugh’s preparation to take over a new position group impressed Evans in 2017. This year, it’s Harbaugh’s ability to relate to his players that has stood out for Evans.
“We’ve got more communication. The communication is better,” Evans said. “If we mess up, we know what he’s going to say. We know his coaching tendencies. What he’s saying, what he expects from us and what he doesn’t expect from us.”
What has helped Harbaugh the most in his second season as running backs coach is that every player in his position group aims to be at his best, whether it’s Higdon striving to break the 1,000-yard plateau, Evans looking to improve his pass protection or Michigan’s younger running backs hoping to crack the rushing rotation.
“Coaching guys like Karan and Chris and Ben [Mason] and O’Maury [Samuels] and Kareem [Walker] and Kurt [Taylor], and all those guys, they want to be really, really great,” Harbaugh said. “As a coach, that makes your job so much more fun and interesting. And it challenges you. They’re always looking for more. They always want more coaching points. They always want more stuff to study. They’re always looking for drills, they’re always looking to be a sponge and consume more.”