Everything Jay Harbaugh said about Michigan football special teams and safeties

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan football’s special teams have been a huge boon for years, and that continued on Saturday against Maryland. Due to Terps returner Tai Felton bobbling the initial kickoff, the Wolverines recovered and had what’s likely their fastest-ever score to start a game, with it only taking eight-total seconds.

On Saturday, the maize and blue special teams, as well as secondary, will have a different challenge, as they travel to Kinnick Stadium to face Iowa.

Wednesday, Michigan special teams coordinator and safeties coach Jay Harbaugh met with the media to discuss his units and preview the upcoming matchup vs. the Hawkeyes. Here is everything he had to say.

How do you get players to take pride in special teams?

I’m not certain that you really need to do a whole lot of things differently here, just because the guys are the type of players that take a lot of pride in what they do. Whether it be offense, defense, or their schoolwork, or the weight room, the kind of players that we have in this program just have a really high internal drive to be great. So it makes it really easy to put them in new roles, or ask them to do new things and have them embrace them.

Has he had players before who weren't willing to do that?

Yeah, I think there’s a balance, and everybody wants to play offense and defense. And most guys are really excited to play special teams. And in addition to that, and I think occasionally when you see a guy who’s like, maybe not super pumped about it, it’s more because they maybe don’t understand it, or they’ve never done it. So there’s obviously some apprehension about doing something you’ve never done before. So I think once guys realize, ‘Hey, Ok, this is just like offense and defense. This is very similar to technique-wise,’ or once they grasp, like, ‘Man, this is really fun being on the field for a game-changing play,’ that kind of thing. Once somebody tastes that, I think that excitement goes up. So you don’t see it a whole lot. But you know, I think once they learn how it can help them and how it can help the team and how fun it can be, I think they’re all in.

How have the young safeties come along?

Those guys are doinga great job,. Guys like Keon and Zeke, and Myles and Kody, they’re doing phenomenal and growing and getting better. And just really getting comfortable with the schemes, understanding the calls, the adjustments, being able to line up quickly and use their tools in terms of what adjustments they should be playing. So those guys are doing a really good job and taking a real pride and their growth from Monday to Thursday, even if they’re not really getting as much action during the games. And when you keep stacking weeks like that, it’s pretty, pretty crazy how much better you can get by the middle of your freshman year, the end of your freshman year, etc. So really pleased with them.

What kind of player is Zeke Berry?

Zeke is a really instinctive, natural football player. When he is confused about something, he tends to have a very good reaction in terms of finding the ball running, taking great angles, hitting and all that stuff. He has a great feel for man coverage as well. There’s a lot to like about him. And as he continues to understand the defense you just see him getting better and better. So I think when it’s his time and when he’s ready to go or called upon, I think you’re gonna see a guy who’s kind of a do-it-all safety that can cover really well in man, can be a good blitzer, good tackler. And I think he would be a really great special teams player as well.

His play versatility with his three starting safeties

Exciting to have three guys like that that are there. They’re similar in the sense that they can all do a lot of jobs, they are all different in terms of their strengths, and what jobs they do best and what matchups are best. But in general, they’re three super good safeties. So that gives you a lot of flexibility to be able to hide certain things coverage-wise, be able to have different guys be blitzers and all that stuff.

So the versatility part is the big thing. If you have a guy who can’t do something, it can make it really tough on a defense because your variety of calls is limited or you have to constantly try to find a way to hide that maybe weak spot or something like that. And so having a really versatile defense overall on the whole back end helps out that problem a lot.

What does he like about each of them?

They’re really, really well-rounded. RJ is exceptional with his communication, which is a real skill as a safety in terms of being able to quickly identify and recognize. Super smart player and gets everybody on the same page. Makari really plays with his hands really, really well, block destruction-wise, very physical player. He does great covering tight ends and stuff. If and when he can press guys, he does phenomenonal. And then Rod is kind of a mix of the two. Rod’s a very good tackler, instinctive tackler. Like he can also play deep in the half in the post really well. And he’s pretty good against the run. So, all three guys bring something a little different to the table but really, really great players.

What has Jim Harbaugh handed down to him schematically?

That’s a hard question. It’s just so much football, I don’t know, it’s hard to pick like a specific thing. There’s, you just grow up around the game. And you know, you learn, you learn the game, you learn from our family’s perspective, what really good football looks like in terms of running and blocking and tackling and playing a certain brand of football. But in terms of specifics of like, scheme, I don’t know if I could say anything that would be insightful at all, I’m not sure I’ve never really thought about that.

Did he know he would be a coach?

I did not know. And I’m grateful to my parents for not kind of pushing me in a certain direction, I thought I wanted to do something else. And then as I got older, as guys kind of found things in high school that they’re good at — the good kids that are good at writing wanted to go to journalism school, and the math guys do engineering, et cetera, et cetera. And I was just kind of like, well, I really like football. And then I think maybe I was waiting, kind of waiting to see if something else really caught my eye. And then, you know, being able to watch my dad and my grandpa and the way that they just — the fulfillment they have in their lives doing what they love, the amazing depth of relationships that they built through this game. I think probably sometime in high school, I kind of realized, Hey, this is something that would be, you know, a fantastic vocation for me.

Has coaching tight ends helped him become a better safeties coach?

It’s certainly helpful. The more you know, the better you can be. And, there’s some occasions where you can watch a play, and you’re kind of, ‘Hey, I think this is what they’re trying to do.’ Or, you know, a lot of times, certain players might not look the way that the offense intends to them to look. But maybe if you have a more authentic experience, you can say, ‘Hey, this is what this play is supposed to be like,’ or, ‘This is what they would want to run.’ So it’s helpful in that sense.

I wouldn’t say it’s particularly helpful in dealing with No. 84 for them. LaPorta, he’s pretty, a pretty special player, just like our tight ends are. So I would say it’s a helpful thing, overall.

Playing good coverage vs. Iowa

Huge, huge. I think just overall in coverage, the more that your linebackers and back end understand what the problems of any coverage are, the better you can be. And that’s one of the things that Iowa’s so spectacular at is they have so much consistency and experience in their system, that they know exactly what all the problem routes or the problem areas are. And they work together to try to mitigate any issues that could arise. So the same thing would be true for us or any defense if, whatever the call is, you know what the call is good against, what the call maybe isn’t as good against. And that’s where your technique and film study come into play in terms of, ‘OK, how do we not get attacked in this coverage?’ Or, ‘how do we answer whatever they would have been presenting to us?’

What are the points of emphasis after Maryland?

For us a lot of it’s just back to basics. We did a lot of really good things in that game from a coverage standpoint. And that was a really a pretty spectacular passing attack. Quarterback has been playing phenomenal, receivers are talented, and there’s a lot of them. Really, really good offense. One of the better offenses probably in the conference. And so we liked what we did, there were some things that were probably avoidable.

In terms of some things we gave up, if we’d have been just a little sharper in terms of alignments and communication and being on the same page, call-wise, we kind of probably could have played a little bit tighter. So that’s one of the focuses going into this week is just making sure we’re on point with all the little details pre-snap to make sure that we’re playing things as well as we can.

Does he want all kickoffs to go out of the endzone?

We want them all to go right off the returner’s head. That’s why we worked on that a lot! (Laughs.)

Yeah, it kind of kind of depends on the game, sometimes, you know, you have a wind, and it’s balls just gonna travel out sometimes. Sometimes early in the season, you might want to want to cover some kicks to try to evaluate guys in terms of how we’re playing fundamentally, fitting up different schemes and playing blocks and all that stuff. So it’s kind of a mix. And it kind of depends on the game plan.

Does he teach younger players the basics, the intricacies, or let them involve into the heavier football material?

Yeah, that’s a really thoughtful question. I would say that it is kind of like, the 200 or 300 level, you know. The base is, ‘Hey, what are we doing? Like, where am I supposed to be? What am I responsible for?’ And then that next level is, ‘OK. If they see that we’re in this if they know that we’re in this, what are the adjustments? How are the receivers gonna lean routes or break routes?’ Or, ‘where’s the quarterback gonna be looking?’ So, I would say that you’re probably right. It’s kind of a secondary, or I think you said graduate-type of progression. I think that’s spot on.

How much of an extra focus is there on special teams vs. Iowa?

Yeah, I would say just against them, regardless of where it’s at, it’s certainly a heightened focus. They’re really, really good, really well-coached and their team, when you line up against them, you feel like you’re playing against yourself in the sense that they all care. They all try. They all run really fast. They’re fundamentally sound.

Traditionally, the returners are very good. They’re very aggressive in terms of their punt block. I mean, they’re just really good. So certainly, everything needs to be just a little bit tighter on the road. But for this particular game, the opponent really creates that heightened awareness and excitement.

(Punter Tory Taylor), he’s really special. He’s a fantastic athlete, and he has great control over the ball. He’s athletic enough that he can take off and run, you always got to be conscientious of that, making sure that you have to have him corralled, if he did try to do that. And they do a nice job doing different things to be able to try to hide where they’re punting the ball, and which direction it’s going and how they’re blocking it, etc. So really, really well coached. And he’s pretty, pretty special as a punter. So it’s a great, great challenge to go against the guy like that.

When a QB has faced a lot of zone the week before, how much of an advantage defensively is it to suddenly pressure him?

I got you. It’s tough to say, I haven’t coached that position. What I would say is that through a lot of reps in last year, and then spring and fall this year, our defense plays, we’re not the same as Iowa by any stretch, we’re different. But we have so much variety, that I think that we can present to our offense a little bit of everything. And so there’s really nothing that our offense would see throughout the season that they hadn’t seen from the Michigan defense at some point, which is a major advantage. There’s been times in the past where that was not the case. And that’s doesn’t mean it was better or worse. But there’s an element to where it can be a little bit challenging if you have to go play defense that you’ve never seen in your life besides for the scout team. So I think that would probably be the biggest thing that he can lean on in terms of (J.J. McCarthy’s) preparation and having confidence going into the game.

Has the variety of defensive schemes in practice helped the offense?

But I was just what I was trying to say is that because just the variety of calls our defense plays, the offense, you’ve been exposed to everything. You’ve seen a little bit of everything. So I think my angle is, just speaking from the defensive side, it’s just more to do with us. Like, he’s not going to see anything where he’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, what is this? What is this coverage?’ Or whatever it might be. And I think that mentally is a nice thing as a quarterback, when you could say, ‘OK, this is similar to this,’ what you’ve seen, this is something that’s familiar. I’m not sure if that answers your question.

But has it improved the offense?

Oh, I see what you said. It certainly doesn’t hurt. It’s probably unknowable as to whether or not that actually helps or not. But it probably does. I know for us on defense, when you play against our offense, and they run zone schemes, gaps schemes, there’s unbalanced, there’s pro sets, there’s three by one, four by one. I mean, there’s everything under the sun that you could face. It’s really nice, because now when you go play other teams, it’s pretty unusual to look at a formation or play and say, ‘What in the world? We’ve never seen this before.’ So yeah, sorry for misunderstanding your question. I think that’s right. And I think it does go both ways. To what extent, I don’t think anyone can really quantify that but I think it is a good thing for our program.

Story originally appeared on Wolverines Wire