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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It’s been a long time since Michigan football’s all-time leading rusher took questions from the media as an entity representing the Wolverines. And for the first time since his playing days — which ended on New Year’s Day in 2008 — Mike Hart was answering questions wearing maize and blue.
From his prodigal return as a coach, to the players he inherited in the running backs room, to former five-star Donovan Edwards, to his rotation philosophy, Hart had a lot to say in his 15 minutes at the podium. WolverinesWire was there and here’s everything that he had to say on Thursday afternoon outside of Schembechler Hall.
What's it been like being back at Michigan?
"It's fun! It's fun. It's great to be back. Obviously, I love this place. Just excited to get going and I'm excited about camps. It's been fun."
On the running backs
"I think you guys are pretty aware of what we have, with Hassan, Blake -- from last year, what they've done. The experience that Hassan has, Blake's obviously still young from that standpoint. Two new guys in Donovan and Tavi round that out. They've been great. Young guys keep getting better, and that's what you want to see. They're growing a lot. They're mid-year guys so they had a beat on the offense, understand the offense. They're just cleaning up all the little things with those two guys. Hassan and Blake just continue to do what they do."
Veteran players in pass protection
"They do a great job, Hassan and Blake. They understand their assignments and they pick up blitzes when they come. As long as they they do that in the game, they'll be alright!"
What he likes most about Hassan Haskins' game
"I think he's just strong. Sneaky, he breaks a lot of tackles -- the first guy doesn't tackle him. He's a guy that, if you see him in shorts and it's outside of camp, you're not as impressed. But when the pads get on, he's a strong runner, breaks a lot of tackles."
On him bringing 'a lot of spice' to the RB room
"Who said that Hassan? Blake? Blake said that, OK. I don't know if (my coaching style) is different, I just am who I am. I think any time a new coach comes in, guys are excited. Every guy does different drills, no matter where you go. I've been to a bunch of NFL camps and watched those running back coaches -- everybody does a little bit different drills. It's just what you believe in and the biggest thing I've tried to do in the transition is any drill we do will transition to the game. They see the drill work we do and the runs that we make and the cuts that we make. "But we have fun. Not that those guys -- you know, they're good kids. I just love being around them. We have a lot of fun."
First thing that stood out to him about Blake Corum
"I think Blake is a little -- he's an undersized guy. He's explosive. He's just a confident kid that wants to be great. He's one of those guys, you want him to slow down because he's always going, going, going. He works his tail off. He's one of the hardest-working running backs in the room."
Does he remind him of himself?
"He works a lot harder! I think that the best -- size-wise, yes. Blake's a lot faster than me, a lot quicker than me. If I was that fast, I'd probably still be playing in the NFL. He's a great kid, but I think his mentality and the way he does things, the way he approaches the game is really similar to the way I did. He doesn't like making mistakes, he's not happy when he makes mistakes. He wants to be perfect. And that's something that reminds me of myself from that standpoint."
What Donovan Edwards looks like in practice as a former five-star?
"He's just an explosive player. I think a lot of you guys have seen his high school tape. The kind of runs he made in high school -- he has the ability to make those in college. When he switches gears, you can tell. He doesn't look out of place. I think a lot of freshmen when they come in, getting used to the speed, getting used to the speed on defense and making people miss, I think it takes a little transition. And it's still a transition for him, he isn't where he needs to be, but you can see that he has the skill set to be really, really special one day, if he gets better -- he's not there yet. But if he continues to grow, continues to take coaching, which he does, he has a chance to be a really good player."
Dynamic amongst the offensive coaching staff
"You know, I think we all get along a lot. Sherrone does a great job with the offensive line, he has a lot of energy. Coach Weiss came in with a lot ideas -- he's a really, really smart guy. He understands the run game, understands the pass game, brings a lot of NFL experience. And then Coach Jay is a phenomenal coach. He's coached tight ends, he's coached running backs, he's coached tight ends. But he's detailed. He understands the game from a holistic approach in the pass game and the run game. And then with Coach Gatt, he just ties that all together. Everyone has a voice, we all give our input. And then Coach Gatt decides what we're gonna do, but he listens to everybody, which is a real great dynamic."
How familiar he was with the roster before arriving?
"At Michigan, we recruit a lot more nationally. But obviously, the Michigan guys who were in the program -- I knew Blake because I recruited that area. I didn't know Hassan. Just the areas I recruited, I knew the guys around. "I've been playing them for four years -- I understood who was on defense because I had to watch them in crossover games all the time and even watched their offense. I may not know them personally, but I knew who they were as players just watching them on film."
Would he have been happy playing in today's college football where RBs don't get 25-30 carries?
"I wouldn't say it doesn't exist anymore! It can happen. It can happen, it just depends on (who is) running the ball. But for a guy -- when I played, I was the only running back that played. A lot more guys involved. Most teams play more than one running back now. So it's hard to get 30 carries. The last job I had, there was a guy that had 30 carries in a game and that was a weather game. So -- pouring rain. I'd be happy as long as we win. I'd rather have 20 carries and win than 40 carries and lose."
What has he seen from the culture inside the program?
"Everything's been great, everything's been great. I only know what I know. I wasn't here last year. I think a lot of that is from the outside in -- I think no one really knows what goes on inside this building besides who's in this building. I can tell you it's been great for Michigan -- coaches great, the players are awesome. I believe they all work hard. And that's all I can tell you. It's been great since I've been here."
Is it similar to his playing days under Lloyd Carr?
"Yeah, there's no question about it. Of what I've seen since January, guys show up, they work, they don't complain -- obviously everyone complains, but they show up, they do the work. They show up again, they do the work. They show up again and they do the work again. Especially in this training camp where we're going on day 12, day 13 today I think? Guys are busting their tail. They want to be great and that's the biggest thing. We have a young team, a team that wants to be great and we're just excited for it, excited for it."
Did he envision he'd be back coaching at Michigan?
"I just want to be the best I can be. I think when you get into the coaching world, there are a lot of Michigan coaches out there that aren't coaching at Michigan. Obviously, for 10 years, that was my career -- I wasn't here. This is special to be home, don't get that wrong, but you've gotta be where you are. Whenever I was at another job, I was never wishing I was somewhere else. That's something Coach Carr taught me early, no matter where I was at -- that school, a Big East school -- you gotta be where you are and take care of the guys who are on your team. And that's all I tried to do. I'm here trying to take care of the guys on this team."
Is recruiting at Michigan different than other stops?
"No, I think everyone has a different style of how they do things, but whether you recruit nationally, locally, regionally, positional recruit, area recruit. I think we do a little bit of all that here. At the end of the day, get the best players. Get the best players that fit into who you are as a program. I think that any job you're at, you've gotta find that niche. What kind of program are you? What kind of offense do you run, what kind of defense do you run? And find those guys wherever you can find them."
Managing the running backs room
"At the end of the day, if (Donovan Edwards) plays, he's ready to play, so he has to go out there and do what he has to do. It's not -- I think everyone knows it's gonna take more than two running backs to get through the season. You're not gonna get through a Big Ten season with two running backs. Will Donovan be on the field at some point? Yeah, it's probably gonna happen. I can't tell you when, I can't tell you how much. But I think that everyone knows that as long as these guys do the work, they show up and earn it, we don't care who's on the field. It could be Danny Hughes, it could be Leon, it could be anybody. You're gonna have to play more than two running backs in the Big Ten in the season. I've not gone through a season with two running backs."
Was that what it was like when he played?
"Yeah, there were three, four running backs that played that year as well. I think any team you look at, there's gonna be three or four running backs that play. It's just when you get to the end of camp, you figure out who's ready to go and you play them as you see fit, as we see fit."
Emphasizing not fumbling
"Thanks a lot! Thanks a lot! (Referring to his final game as a player.) I think that we talk about as a program, whether it's defense or offense, we talk about how you take care of the ball. Defense needs to understand -- all offense players need to understand: if you turn the ball over, you can't win. It's the No. 1 stat in football, right? The probability of winning is turnovers -- winning the turnover ratio. Whether it's the quarterback throwing interceptions or receivers fumbling, no matter what it is, you have to emphasize that as a program, because if you turn the ball over, you're not gonna win. Obviously, as a player it was important, but as a coach, it's even more important. Ball security is job security. You can't play if you fumble the ball -- and they know that. If you put the ball on the ground, you're not gonna be in the game. "Unless it's Florida and you fumble twice inside the five! They had to leave me in, right?"
His relationship with Jim Harbaugh since 2007
"2007? How old were you in 2007? 25? How old was I in 2007? Angelique, do you know? 21? Pretty sure I was 21 years old. "It's been great. Ever since coach has got the job here, we've stayed in contact, we've talked. We've done camps together when they were doing all the mega camps. We've had a great relationship. Stuff happens, it is what it is and you move on."
Chocking the Harbaugh disparagement in 2007 up to youth?
"I've said a lot of things in my life, you guys know that! Youth, inexperience. I think that people say things when you're angry and I've learned not to say things when I'm angry, I'll tell you that. Me and Jim have been great. It didn't just start when he hired me. We've had a relationship before that -- he didn't just call me out of the blue. We've talked over the years since he's gotten here. We've texted about the Ohio State game, we've played the same teams they've played. We've had a relationship. There's no animosity, we're good, we've been good."
Running back rotation philosophy
"Play them how I see fit at the end of the day. You have to let a guy get a little comfortable in the game. I think there's always two first or second down backs, there's a third down back, there's a short-yardage back -- it can be the same guy, right? If a guy is better at something -- if Blake is better on third down than Hassan, then it would be smart to play Blake, right? If it's third down, if it's third and long. If Hassan's a better short-yardage runner on third-and-1, then put Hassan in the game. I think that whoever earns those jobs, whoever is better at them, then that's who's gonna be in the game in those situations, from that standpoint. "At my previous job, there was a guy who didn't play on third down at all in his first two years and then last year, he played every third down because he got better at it. It really just depends on where they are in their career. Do they know pass pro? Can they pick up blitzes? Can they do those things in certain situations? Are they better at third-and-1? There might be a guy who never plays but who goes in at third-and-1 that's gonna be our running back. And everyone knows we're running. That's one of those things, whoever earns those jobs, that's who's gonna be in those situations -- when it's clear as day. Obviously, you can't just say, 'Oh, he's in the game,' and it's gonna be a pass, right? If it's third-and-12, (put in) the third-and-12 back?"
What he's looking forward about being back in The Big House as a coach
"Just the fans cheering for me, I guess! Not booing. But no, it's gonna be exciting, it's gonna be exciting to be on that sideline finally. I've been there a couple times on the other sideline. Really just looking forward to it, it's gonna be fun. I'm just excited to be back."
He's gotten booed on the sidelines?
"Not booed -- I mean the team! The team got booed! I hope they weren't booing me! I would hope not!"
What has he learned from Fred Jackson as a coach?
"Coach J -- just a great guy. I think someone who does it that long has a lot of knowledge. He's seen the highs, the lows. He's seen all types of running backs. A lot of who I am as a coach is from Coach Jackson, the things I've been taught, the things I teach my guys -- ball security, whatever that is -- comes from Coach J. We still talk, he obviously still lives in town. He's one of my mentors from that standpoint."