This is the third 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.
The widespread reaction in Ann Arbor after Jim McElwain’s spring hiring was “why?” Just Google ‘McElwain Michigan’ and every other result is a column lambasting the Wolverines for hiring him. At first, that reaction makes sense — McElwain has spent the past year as the butt of constant jokes, on and off the field.
And the criticism is fair — to an extent. McElwain has reached rock bottom, and Michigan fans do not want to be associated with rock bottom. But he has also been sent thirteen years into his past — before his days as a head coach, before his days as an offensive coordinator, even before his days as a quarterbacks coach — to wide receivers coach, a role he hasn’t filled since 2005 at Michigan State.
“I’ve had great opportunities,” McElwain said in a spring interview, … “this is another opportunity for (me) to get a little bit better and just be involved in helping some guys grow.”
What is now forgotten is why he rose to national prominence in the first place. After three years at Colorado State, he spent the 2015 and 2016 seasons taking Florida back to a level it has struggled to reach since Urban Meyer left.
The Gators won back-to-back SEC East titles, reached the national top-10 multiple times, destroyed 3rd ranked Ole Miss 38-10 in 2015, and won the 2016 Outback Bowl. In 2015, McElwain was even named SEC coach of the year.
Last year, though, was a different story. Florida came into the season with high expectations but were comfortably beaten by Michigan and lost nailbiters to LSU and Texas A&M. The final nail in McElwain’s coffin came in the Gators’ seventh game, a 42-7 loss to Georgia. Most worringly for Michigan, his offenses were consistently among the worst in FBS.
Off the field, McElwain was ridiculed nationwide for the now infamous picture of a man who looks like him posing naked with a shark. Though that photo was debunked, tensions between him and the Florida upper brass remained strained for a variety of reasons, ultimately leading to his firing.
Despite his anemic offenses rocky tenure in Gainesville, though, McElwain boasts the resume of an impressive offensive mind.
He spent nineteen seasons as a wide receivers coach at Eastern Washington, Montana State, Louisville, and Michigan State. It may have been more than a decade ago but he helped turn Deion Branch from a junior college transfer to NFL star at Louisville, and coached future second-round draft pick Devin Thomas for two years at Michigan State.
The crowning achievement of McElwain’s career, though, is his four seasons as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Alabama from 2008-11. In those four years, he helped coach the Crimson Tide to two national championships and led the 35th, 22nd, 18th, and 20th ranked offenses — top five in the SEC every year.
On the personnel side, his offenses included Julio Jones, AJ McCarron, Trent Richardson, and Mark Ingram. Of course, it’s Alabama and they will always produce elite talent but being entrusted with Nick Saban’s offense is a statement in itself.
McElwain will also likely be tasked with more recruiting responsibilities for Michigan than he has had in previous stops, already securing 2019 three-star George Johnson III. 247 credits him with just five previous recruiting coups, though two of those include McCarron and Green Bay Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a 2011 five-star.
Thanks to his past, the media will undoubtedly follow McElwain more than any other wide receivers coach in the country. For him, the most important thing will be blocking it out, forgetting his Florida tenure, and settling in to the Wolverines’ coaching staff.
On the field, though, his role as wide receivers coach could be a sneakily critical one.
Michigan’s wide receivers largely disappointed in 2017, helping contribute to the Wolverines’ abysmal passing game by failing to get open and dropping passes on key plays against Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State.
“For us, the focus areas have been to number one, get open, especially against press coverage,” McElwain said. “They’ve really worked on honing their skills and trying to do what we’re trying to teach them to do and yet, they’ve got a long ways to go.”
They came into the season as a significant portion of Michigan’s fifth-ranked recruiting class, with Donovan Peoples-Jones the number one overall wide receiver prospect, and Tarik Black, Nico Collins, and Oliver Martin all coming in as four-stars.
“There obviously is a lot of talent here, and good young talent,” McElwain said. “The thing I really enjoy is being in that room with them. They’re really good young men.”
The group was tasked with replacing the production of Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, and Jake Butt but Martin redshirted and the other three combined for just 36 receptions for 453 yards, though Black looked dangerous in three games before a season-ending broken foot.
Wide receiver prospects often take at least a year to settle in to new systems but they are also prone to busting. McElwain’s task will be overseeing this critical year of development for the 2017 class and molding them into trusted weapons who can help elevate Shea Patterson to the next level.
What they’re saying
Ha Ha Clinton Dix, on playing for McElwain: “He’s a great guy, honest person … just someone I would love to play for again. The energy he brings is like none other.”
Jim Harbaugh, on his alleged beef with McElwain before the 2017 Michigan-Florida game: “I’ve got no problem with Jim. We’re coaching our ball teams, that’s all we’re doing right now. Is there something I’m missing here?”
Nick Saban, on the decision to hire McElwain in 2009: “When the time came and we needed a coordinator Jim was one of the guys highest on my list. When I interviewed him, I was very impressed with him as a person as well as a football coach.”