ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In working with a new position coach, Ty Isaac had to embrace the Socratic method of teaching and learning.
You see, when Isaac made a mistake or tried something out of scheme, he found himself answering a certain line of questions from first-year Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh.
“He’s a little bit different from coach Wheat [former running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley], and that’s not a good or a bad thing,” Isaac said Tuesday. “They’re different but I also think some of the things he does makes us … it’s not as much as — and I want to say it the right way. It’s not him coaching, but he’ll make us talk through our own mistakes or he’ll ask us questions as to why we did something so that way, he can make his own coaching point.
“But at the same time, you can talk yourself through it and you realize, ‘this is why I did this,’ or ‘this is why I didn’t do this and this is why I should or should not have done.’ ”
Isaac found he responded to Harbaugh’s use of one of the oldest approaches to teaching — one that’s more philosophical as opposed to spoon-feeding a playbook or a set of schemes.
The back-and-forth feedback became constructive for Isaac in his development as a running back.
“I liked that,” Isaac said. “Sometimes it could be situations on the field where, ‘this may have been your assignment but you had to do this,’ and we can sit there and talk through it. Whether it be right or wrong, we’re going to talk through it and come to a conclusion of, ‘OK, I understand why you can do it but this is why you can or cannot do it.’
“I think not only for me, but for everybody else, that kind of gives you a better understanding of the playbook and the concepts and the schemes that we’re trying to accomplish.”
Where Ty Isaac fits in the Michigan backfield
Isaac ran for 417 yards and 5 touchdowns on 74 carries as part of Michigan’s four-back rotation in 2016. Isaac, Chris Evans and Karan Higdon return, while Kareem Walker joins the group after redshirting in 2016. Freshmen O’Maury Samuels and Kurt Taylor also join the mix of running backs.
It remains to be seen how Michigan will divvy up its responsibilities among the running backs, and exactly who will do what. Harbaugh hasn’t publicly disclosed his plans, but he does point to Isaac’s gains.
“He’s just doing everything right,” Harbaugh said. “Running the ball well, he’s been great in protection, reliable hands, taking care of the ball. He’s a little bit trimmer, so he’s moving a little bit more swiftly, so we’re really excited about him.”
Harbaugh said the 6-foot-3, 210-pound running back from Shorewood, Ill., has also stood out in pass protection.
“He’s the most improved just in terms of being able to use his size to his advantage,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a very big back, so being able to shoot his hands and be a physical presence on backers on interior rushes, that’s been a big thing.”
Ty Isaac facing his final season at Michigan
Isaac transferred to Michigan from USC in the summer of 2014, and sat out a year because of NCAA transfer rules.
When he was eligible to play for the Wolverines in 2015, he didn’t make much of an impact. He had 30 carries for 205 yards and 1 touchdown in seven games, and at one point in the season didn’t even travel with the team.
Following his first season under Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, Isaac had to make some changes. He had to improve his conditioning. He had to improve his attitude. He even had to lose weight. He dropped 15 pounds going into the 2016 season.
Isaac said he takes the same mindset into his final year of college football. For some seniors who start their final year of college, there’s a level of totality that comes with the end of August and the start of September.
Isaac isn’t looking too far ahead.
“I could go out and get hurt on my first play against Florida [in the season opener] and be done for the season,” Isaac said. “To me, it’s not something I’m going to sit and dwell on because ideally, I’d like to continue playing football after being at Michigan. To me, it’s one of those things I don’t really think about because if I’m lucky enough to make it to the next level, every season could be your last. There’s no sense in worrying about something I can’t control.”
Instead, Isaac will take a day-by-day approach and continue to solve the problems in front of him. Sometimes with a little help from his position coach.