ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Upon his arrival in 2015, it was clear that Jay Harbaugh would be a real-deal asset for the Michigan Wolverines.
Young, energetic, experienced — even for his age, then 27 — and part of a well-known Harbaugh coaching tree that started with grandpa Jack, father Jim and uncle John — all the qualities were there from the beginning.
According to players, Jay Harbaugh has introduced fresh viewpoints, innovative strategies and the hard analysis of tendencies and statistics as Michigan’s running backs coach.
This past spring, Chris Evans, a true freshman in 2016, mentioned that Jay Harbaugh viewed the game through the lens of a small back, whereas former running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley Sr. offered a big-back perspective.
It is different now with Jay Harbaugh, there’s no denying that. But the third-year Wolverines staffer doesn’t necessarily know if he caters to small backs. Well, actually he does. But he also caters to midsize backs, bulldozing backs and fullbacks.
He’s in it for everyone.
“I don’t know if I could explain the difference or anything, because I don’t know that I’d agree that I see things like a small back or anything,” Jay Harbaugh said during Monday’s media session at Schembechler Hall.
“I just try to look at each guy, and what they bring to the table, and what their skill set is. … You have to understand that they’re all different, so whether or not that’s different than before, I really couldn’t tell you. But we do have a good group of guys; they all bring a little something different to the table. Just when you’re calling plays and substituting, that’s something that you keep in mind.”
WATCH: Jay Harbaugh discusses ongoing formation of RB rotation
While Evans — a 5-foot-11, 212-pound sophomore — appears to be the front runner for the No. 1 job, Jay Harbaugh has a well-rounded stable awaiting carries on Saturday, and it’s about four-deep, at a minimum.
“They’ve all improved at the things we’ve asked them to improve on, so I’d have a hard time saying any one person (has made the biggest leap),” Jay Harbaugh said.
Evans, Ty Isaac and Kareem Walker have done well across the board. Walker — a 6-1, 207-pound redshirt freshman — has gained ground while learning the playbook. Isaac has slimmed down a bit, providing more agility and grace. Once listed at 6-3 and 230 pounds, the USC transfer could add a new dimension of power to the Wolverines run game.
Make sure to recognize Karan Higdon, too. The 5-10, 189-pound junior has an incredible burst, according to quarterback John O’Korn — something that would greatly complement the power, speed and elusiveness of the other running backs.
“Shoot, man — just everything,” Jay Harbaugh replied when asked about Higdon’s most noticeable improvement. “The biggest thing would probably be protections. He’s been really, really reliable and we have some very aggressive, physically capable linebackers and he’s done a great job picking up blitzes and putting his face in there — because, he’s not the biggest guy, but he’s very, very willing (to make contact) …”
During the 2016 season, Higdon proved that he could pinball his way through defenses. Though it was a 78-0 laugher, he rushed for 108 yards and scored two touchdowns against Rutgers. During a 41-8 homecoming slamming of Illinois, he broke off a 45-yard run, finishing with 108 on the day.
A difficult tackle, he ducked and dived his way to 44 yards on 10 carries during a 32-23 win at Michigan State — Michigan’s first in East Lansing since a 12-10 victory in 2012. The Wolverines need backs such as Higdon, and he enjoys engaging defenders, which is a major bonus in the eyes of a running backs coach.
“He has natural leverage and can play with some violence,” Jay Harbaugh said. “So that’s probably the biggest thing, because he’s always been able to carry the ball. But he’s doing it with a little more strength and power too; he’s doing great.”
Combining forces with Greg Frey, formerly the offensive coordinator at Indiana, has basically completed the puzzle for the run game. In addition to coaching tackles and tight ends, Frey also coordinates the run game.
Frey’s experience with perimeter and zone runs, in particular, has opened doors to several possibilities.
The roles have been made clear and definite. Though he used to coach tight ends, just this past season, actually, Jay Harbaugh won’t get involved with the 2017 tight ends — that’s all Frey, he said.
“He coaches tight ends, and I kind of stay with the backs,” he continued. “It’s kind of like a band. Like you know, if you’re the bass player, you don’t just go hop on the drums just because you feel like it, because you used to play drums — it’s kind of, you’ve got to stick to your instruments. And I think you can create some pretty good music that way.”