Meet the Coaches: Jay Harbaugh, Running Backs Coach
This is the first in an eleven-part pre-season series in which I introduce all eleven members of the Michigan football coaching staff between now and the season opener, starting with the lowest-profile and building up to head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Yes, he is Jim Harbaugh’s son. And yes, his previous job was working under his uncle John Harbaugh for the Baltimore Ravens. But cry nepotism all you want – Jay has earned his role on the Michigan coaching staff.
After realizing in high school that he didn’t possess the skill set to play collegiately, he turned his eye toward following in the family footsteps as a coach.
“Luckily, I was both undersized and slow. It was really a coveted combination,” Harbaugh said in a 2013 interview with the San Diego Union Tribune. … “I said, ‘I want to coach anyway.’ “
He began his coaching career in college as an undergraduate assistant under then-Oregon State coach Mike Riley.
“Jay has forged his own way in this business to be a very good young coach,” Riley said in a 2014 interview with The Mercury News. “Jay is a grinder. He’s like Jim to a T.”
However, it was not until Michigan that Jay joined up with his father. In 2014, he turned down an opportunity to work under Jim with the 49ers, opting to stay with the Ravens as an offensive quality control assistant, preparing scouting reports and statistical analysis for the team.
The next offseason, he followed his dad to Ann Arbor. He spent his first two years with the Wolverines working as tight ends coach, helping transform Jake Butt into an all-American at the position after averaging just 20.5 receptions and 223 yard per season before Harbaugh’s arrival.
Last year, Harbaugh shifted to become Michigan’s running backs coach after Tyrone Wheatley departed for the Jacksonville Jaguars. While the team’s rushing total decreased by 35.6 yards per game, its rushing yards increased as a percentage of total offense despite a lower run-to-pass ratio after the graduation of 2016 starter De’Veon Smith.
After two seasons of reigning over tight ends, Harbaugh’s specialty lies in pass-protection but both rising senior Karan Higdon and the graduated Ty Isaac flourished on the ground last season. The duo each saw their yardage and yards per carry increase in 2017, though rising junior Chris Evans dropped from 7.0 to 5.1 yards per carry with a larger workload.
Running back is the rare position without many questions for the Wolverines. Following Isaac’s graduation, Michigan’s backfield is shaping up to be a two-man show, with Higdon leading the way and Evans playing a significant role as the number-two back.
Higdon took over as the lead back midway through 2017, finishing sixth in the Big Ten in rushing yards and third among backs who will return in 2018. Barring injury, both he and Evans will be critical parts of the Wolverines’ ground attack.
But in his dad’s run-heavy offense, Harbaugh knows that Michigan needs more than two producers at running back.
“Playing three backs at a lot of places doesn’t seem like it’s a prudent thing to do,” Harbaugh said. “But if you’re gonna run the ball 35 to 40 times, it’s very reasonable. So there are a lot of roles to be earned.”
“O’Maury, Kareem, and Kurt, as well as the remainder of the guys, you (have to) prove day in and day out that you’re a reliable guy and you can help us win in some particular role – or hopefully more than one.”
Another key storyline surrounding Harbaugh will be his ability to improve the running backs in pass protection. This was an area in which he was supposed to make a positive impact with his experience coaching tight ends. Instead, the running back group only contributed to the Wolverines’ pass-blocking woes a year ago.
“(Pass protection) is something that we’ll keep grinding on,” Harbaugh said.
“Sometimes, you really gotta stick your face in there and take pride in letting the quarterback follow through on a throw and feel totally at ease.”
What they’re saying
Mike Riley, on Harbaugh’s time as an Oregon State undergraduate assistant: “Just about anything you gave Jay you didn’t have to worry about it. He started out with our special teams coach and they did a great job of working that recruiting area this coach had, then he helped him with stuff on the field. Then he became our signaler.”
Jim Harbaugh, on what Jay can teach him: “There’s a difference between being 24 and 50 in the way you see the world. He’s most helpful to me. He’s young, academic and his perspective enlightens me. One time, I asked, ‘Do guys give you a hard time about working for your uncle (John), automatically look at that as the reason you got the job?’ His response was: ‘It’s my responsibility to not give them the opportunity to confirm that suspicion.’ I thought that was really profound.”
Ty Isaac, on Harbaugh’s first game as running backs coach last fall: “He got the conversation going. He was interactive with us. He asked what plays we were seeing, what worked and what didn’t, and I think we worked really well together.”
Karan Higdon, on working with Harbaugh: “Because Coach Jay’s never played the position, sometimes we see things he may not see and sometimes it’s vice versa. Which is really good because we’re able to converse about it and try to get each other to see and get to a mutual understanding. And it’s been great because it’s enabled us to reach our full potential as a runner.”
Chris Evans, on the transition from Wheatley to Harbaugh: “It’s like a running backs coach never even left,” Evans said. “He jumped right in and got on board with everything that we were doing.”