Jay Harbaugh talks Michigan football’s tight ends, special teams after Week 5

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan football just had an impressive showing on the road at Wisconsin, and a big part of the Wolverines’ success was due to the offensive blocking and big special teams plays.

The man who oversees both the tight ends as well as the special teams unit is Jay Harbaugh, who moved over from running backs to the former position group this offseason. Considering how improved the tight ends have been and how dynamic special teams has been, it made sense that he would speak to the media for over 20 minutes on Wednesday.

He also shared more on his recruitment of Blake Corum when he coached that position, what he’s seen out of Nebraska and much, much more. Here is everything he had to say at his press conference.

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3 keys to a Michigan football win vs. Nebraska

What did you see from the tight ends against Wisconsin?

“It was a lot of fun to watch. Just a physical game. If you’re talking particularly about the tight ends – super physical. Really big, like unusually big unit – particularly the linebackers, the inside backers, the guys that we often ended up blocking – really physically imposing guys. And guys who really had a ton of success against everyone they played. Coming downhill and hitting everyone in the face. That’s a tall order to be able to match up with them in the trenches and our guys, they did that. There was certain plays where Wisconsin guys got the better of them, but you just love to see how committed they were to establishing the run, the physicality of the game, the preparation that went into it and to be able to go toe to toe, and play after play hitting those guys.

“It really was like a classic Big Ten game, it felt like.”

Will it be similar to facing Nebraska’s defense?

“Certainly. Nebraska, they’re really, really aggressive. They’ve got a lot of veteran players, which is very similar to Wisconsin. I don’t know the specific numbers, but an unusual number of third, fourth, fifth, and sixth-year players that play on the defense for both those teams. So you’re talking about guys who are veterans, they know the schemes, what they’re being asked to run, but they’re also physically developed so they’re stout at the point of attack, they’re good at taking on blocks, they’re well-coached. From that regard, they’re definitely similar.”

Difference for Erick All this year from last year

“He works his butt off. Erick’s really committed to being great. He had certain things in the past he didn’t do a great job of, which is not really anything from a skill-development standpoint, it’s a mental thing. The ability to do one thing at a time. ‘OK, I know the play, I release, I beat my man, I get open, I find the ball, I catch the ball, and then I receive to try to get yards after the catch.’ That’s easy, but when things are thought about out of order, that’s when you have simple mistakes. And that same thing applies to every position or any other sport, too. So you’re just seeing a guy who worked really hard, is maturing, and as he’s gaining confidence, the game slows down, he’s just doing one thing at a time. That would be what I would attribute that to.”

What's different about this team?

“I think we’ve talked about this maybe the last time I was out here. Energy is a word that comes up a lot, right? I’d imagine in the other interviews, too — I think that’s a real thing. If you have great energy, you’re gonna practice better, you’re gonna prepare better, so you’re gonna play better. It’s like a chicken and the egg thing: yeah, if you’re gonna play better, then yeah — your energy is also gonna go up because it’s more fun to win. You’re gonna have more enthusiasm, more juice, so-to-speak, if you’re playing well.

“I think that the energy the team brought throughout winter and spring, the energy that the coaches contributed to that in the small amount that we’re able to, that led to great preparation. As they started having success, it just kind of — it’s a cycle, right? It kind of feeds into itself. They’re really kind of riding that wave right now. It’s fun to see.”

Seeing 'jump around' spontaneously happen

“It was pretty cool. It was pretty cool to see. Not for a sticking it to them or making a spectacle out of it, but to see guys that are truly in that moment, just pure bliss, pure joy, as a product of them working really, really hard and preparing like crazy. That’s what motivates us as coaches, trying to get guys to develop and be as good as they can possibly be, and there’s nothing more fun than feeling the joy of that. The joy of the improvement and seeing the success that’s a product of the process. That was a very, very dramatic example of that, but that’s what we love to see as coaches, so it was pretty neat.”

How are the tight ends we're not seeing a lot of progressing?

“That’s an unusual question, to ask about guys that don’t play. I love that! I’m being serious, because those guys, guys like Matt Hibner — you sign as a recruit and you’re a big deal, and then you don’t hear about them for a couple years. His journey is ever as much as busy and as strenuous day-to-day as what Erick and Joel and Schoony are doing. He’s trying to battle and get as good as can possibly get because there’s gonna be a time where he’s asked to do those jobs and has the spotlight on him — he’s gotta be ready.

“Guys like him and Lou Hansen, they’re preparing their butts off and doing a great job day in and day out with practice, with lifts, with learning and trying to get involved on special teams. Hibby has started on a couple special teams, which is kind of a great starting point as you try to get involved and get to the point where you’re contributing on offense and defense. They’re doing really good.

“I was being totally serious about (your question) by the way.”

When did he start sensing the players trusting the coaches?

“Trust is huge. It’s a simple thing and it’s not easy for everybody. It’s as simple as you make a promise and you keep it. That’s as simple as trust is. I don’t know the exact saying, but there’s something to the extent of trust and communication are inversely correlated. If you have a high-level of trust in something, you don’t need to go and explain it, ‘This is why we’re doing it exactly like this all the time.’ If you trust me, ‘We’re gonna do it this way, that’s a great idea, Coach has my best interest in mind.’ If you don’t trust each other, every single thing is gonna be met with skepticism.

“We’re talking about a limited amount of time, some high-pressure situations, trying to meet and practice and prepare to play a game, if you trust each other and believe in everyone’s intentions being totally for the team, totally for the benefit of each other, things are always going to go a lot smoother. That’s something that’s been building for awhile. I don’t think it’s something that’s necessarily been a problem for us before, but I think that it’s exceptionally strong right now.”

How hands on is he with the specialists, especially Jake Moody?

“So that kind of thing is both about the actual players as much as it is about your own philosophy because Jake and Brad are such veteran guys. They’ve been doing it for so long, they’re very much attuned to what they need from a day-to-day, week-to-week basis preparation-wise. They’re very attuned to when they’re at their best and if they have an off-day, what are the likely causes of it. With guys like that, you don’t need to be necessarily be looking over their shoulder all the time. But, on the flipside, a guy like Tommy Doman, a guy everyone knows is gonna be a great player for us, who’s not playing at all right now, that’s a guy who, he’s on that journey to becoming that same kind of player and needs that same structure day-to-day, a little bit more constructive criticism and direction in terms of what he’s doing day-in, day-out.”

What does he do when Jake misses a kick?

“Personally, with those types of players, and I think a lot of players in general, the work’s been put in to that point, and you’re not gonna make any real, drastic changes in terms of your swing as a kicker. If there’s something that has to do with the wind, this play (didn’t) play how you thought it was gonna play — how was the snap, how was the hold, the operation and all of that stuff? Yeah, you’re gonna make sure that things are the way they need to be, but it would be akin to going in the middle of a round of golf, someone going, ‘Hey, do this with your swing.’ Well everyone’s that’s golfed that’s been there — that shot’s probably gonna be a brutal shot, right? There’s just certain things you don’t want to start thinking about too much in the course of a game, and kicking and punting the football is certainly one of them.

“Those guys are so good that they spoil you because they’ll come off and tell you exactly what happened. It goes back to the first part of the question that they’re so veteran that there’s so few things that could happen for them that they don’t already know it before you can say it to them, which is true of — Stueber is like that, Cade is like that, Hassan and Blake are like that. You guys are probably like that as media folk. It comes with the level of experience.”

Why has A.J. Henning been able to step up as the punt returner?

“He really invested himself in becoming a great decision-maker and improving his ball skills back there. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s not a thing that — I don’t think most people know that it’s very different than catching a football. A lot goes into it in terms of how the punter kicks it, how the ball spins, the flight of the ball, the wind, the sun, the rain. There’s a lot of things that go into it. So it’s not a simple as, ‘Hey, this guy: put him back there!’ You look around college football, and there’s plenty of dynamic players that don’t return punts. Most of the time, it’s not because they’re trying to save them or something. It’s because the guy can’t catch punts. It’s a tough thing.

“So A.J., he’s been working at it for awhile. He’s been getting better and better. And that was kind of an opportunity where he was actually a little bit further down the depth chart, invested himself in it, really wanted to do it and got himself to the point where we looked at him and said, ‘Great, you’re good enough. We trust you.’ He’s done an awesome job so far. He’s been explosive and — the guys look back there and it inspires them to play harder to do a better job blocking downfield, making better decisions downfield, being smart. The whole thing feeds off itself.

“It all goes back to when you talked about trust earlier. When you’re a punt return player and you know A.J. Henning’s back there, you have to have a level of belief, like, ‘Man, this guy could do anything with the ball in his hand. It looks like he’s gonna get tackled and he’s not, so I’m gonna play it harder, I don’t want to commit any big penalties, take any big plays off the board. I’m just gonna believe that anything can happen. I’m gonna make this block.’ Belief, the way we talk about it is belief and effort go together. If you believe he’s gonna catch the ball, he’s gonna make that gunner miss and have a big play, then what’s gonna happen? Then you’re gonna go harder. You’re gonna go hard for the eight, 10, 12 seconds that that play goes on, which is unusual for football but normal for special teams.

“Been thrilled with A.J. Love the depth of the guys behind him as well. We’re gonna try to keep doing a good job in that phase.”

What did Blake Corum do in high school that led him to recruit him?

“Honestly, there’s two things. The first is that when you talk to Blake, it’s hard to put in words but you have this feeling that there’s something special about him. The conviction that he would speak about what he wants to accomplish, the belief he has in himself. The passion that he has for being great.

“I remember very early in recruiting him, probably the — it was in the winter time of his junior year. A lot of guys would post videos of them working out or they’d post a picture of a barbell or a ladder and they’d say ‘grind season!’ They’d say all this stuff. But Blake, Blake would post these videos of, in his car driving. It would be at like 4:15 in the morning. He would just say something on the way to his gym, just different little captions, right? It was like, ‘Wow, he’s up really early.’ And you’d notice day-after-day, every day, it was like that. This ain’t some pre-planned thing that posts automatically. This guy is literally getting up every single day at four to train. And he’s commuting to school, a lot of the times, in Baltimore — which is away from his home. You take his God-given ability and the fact that he’s totally, completely obsessed with being great. If you could find those two things together, it’s always gonna work out — always. He’s just a great example of that. He could go anywhere and be successful at anything just because of the mindset and the heart that he has.”

Jake Moody has a good arm and they've practiced fakes, could that happen? And is the most balanced special teams has been?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. In terms of the first question, we’re gonna keep Jake just kicking! They always want to do something (extra)! Chuck Filiaga asked if he could play tight end. You got kickers trying to throw. One of the linebackers asked, said he could onside kick the other day. These guys are nuts! Yeah, they love football, and it is amazing sometimes what one guy could do. Gentry was a great punter. We never got to see it, but he could punt really well, which was fascinating.

“But anyways, on the second part of the question, I don’t know if I’d compare it to other years, but at least in terms of the kicker and punter, I don’t think there’s been a point where we’ve had two guys both playing this consistently well. We’ve had guys playing great, but I don’t think we’ve had both guys at both spots playing this well all the time. That’s a credit to them and the work that they’ve put in over time. The rest of the guys in the four phases or six phases — like I’ve said before, if it’s the punt team, everyone believes in Brad and they love blocking for him and they love covering punts when the ball’s up there for 4.5 seconds, five seconds.

“You look at the play that Joey V. made with the recovery, the thing that’s cool about that is nearly the whole punt team was down there inside the 10-yard line and was totally prepared for that to happen. That’s not really the norm. You don’t see guys always covering and always going hard for every play. That’s kind of a throwaway play sometimes when you’re punting that close to the end zone. You’re assuming there’s not gonna be a return, so guys kinda walk down the field and we had darn near everybody there on top of the ball when it happened. That just speaks to the belief that they have in each other and the fun that they have playing on special teams.”

Has he noticed anything different about Jim Harbaugh's energy and enthusiasm this year?

“Umm, no, I have not. I’ve known him for awhile! He’s been pretty enthusiastic as long as I’ve known him. I think that that’s probably a — I would suspect that that’s a story that people would like to write, but I wouldn’t be able to substantiate that at all because he’s crazy about football, he’s crazy about getting better. He’s always positive. All he cares about is his family and Michigan football playing really well and getting better and getting the most out of guys. I don’t think that part of it’s different. I think some of the scheme things we’re doing, the personalities are different in different parts of the building are different. The players, they’re older, they’re better. In some cases they’re different. But I don’t think that his approach or leadership necessarily has been very different. That’s just my personal opinion.”

Does Chuck Filiaga have good hands?

“I’m not giving him the opportunity to back that claim up!”

How is Tommy Doman doing, is he kicking and punting? And who are the backups?

“Doman is doing a nice job. He’s getting better and better. He’s working on improving his hands, catching it. Hands as a punter is huge, you’ve gotta be able to catch like a receiver because any mishandle of the ball is gonna effect the operation time, which is going to put you at risk of getting the punt blocked. So he’s been working on that, he’s been working on his control. At the college level, you want to have more directional control, just because the returners are so good. But he’s doing a really good job. In some of the games this year, he would have been the backup at both spots. Other guys like Cole Hussung have done a really nice job. He’s gotten really good as a kickoff guy and he’s gotten a lot better as a field goal guy, as well. And Rhett Andersen has been pretty good. Nearly neck-and-neck with Cole in terms of field goals.

“So, it’s a really good group. Obviously, the two guys kind of steal the show at the top but the other guys are getting a lot better and they’re really valuable for us throughout the week in terms of simulating the style that teams are punting and all of that stuff. We’re really glad we have all those guys and they have a really bright future ahead of them all.”

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