Jim Harbaugh explains how Michigan football is different this season

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In a reflection of Michigan football’s 3-0 start to the season and climb to No. 19 in the USA TODAY Coaches Poll, the media contingent outside Schembechler Hall swelled for coach Jim Harbaugh’s weekly news conference Monday. More reporters, more cameras and more attention for these Wolverines, who opened as massive 19-point favorites against Rutgers.

With his team performing well in all three phases, Harbaugh was asked why the 2021 team looks so different than the on-field product from last year’s 2-4 campaign that ended with a gutting of the coaching staff. His answer reflected a common theme drawn upon by players and coaches seemingly every day during their interactions with media, a theme that speaks to some of the deeper issues with the 2020 roster.

“The biggest thing is just how hard they’re playing,” Harbaugh said. “And they’re having fun doing it. Good things happen when you play hard. Energy. Energy just finds the ball, whether you’re on defense or you’re on offense. The ball finds you.”

There is an element of opaqueness when figures in sports say one team played harder than the other, that one team wanted it more. The idea of effort and will are difficult concepts to define in the visual sense. They’re nebulous.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh during warm up before a game against Northern Illinois at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh during warm up before a game against Northern Illinois at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.

As an illustration of his point, Harbaugh referenced the stellar downfield blocking by the Wolverines this season. Offensive linemen, wide receivers and tight ends have carried out their assignments until plays are truly over rather than checking out early if they aren’t immediately involved in the action.

“Just playing with a lot of want-to, playing with a lot of energy, playing really hard,” Harbaugh said. “See it in the secondary. You see it, really, at all positions. See it in the offensive line. And the tight ends. And the receivers.

“Some of the hustle in the downfield blocking coming from (left tackle Ryan) Hayes 15 or 25 yards downfield. Or Roman Wilson or Erick All. (Tight end Luke) Schoonmaker had some tremendous blocks, touchdown-type of blocks and they’re occurring 10, 20, 30, 40 yards — we even had a 50-yard block downfield. Like I said, good things happen when you play hard.”

Indeterminate as that concept may seem, the Wolverines seem to have mastered it. The mood around Schembechler Hall is chipper.

Praise for Josh Ross

Through three games, inside linebacker Josh Ross has made or contributed to 10 more tackles than any other player on the U-M defense. He ranks first on the team in quarterback hits, second on the team in tackles for loss and has proven to be a highly effective blitzer for defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.

The quality his performances are not lost on Harbaugh.

“Josh Ross just continues to be playing so well,” Harbaugh said. “I mean all out, all the time. Playing with great instincts. The strength is there. Even when he’s covered up — I’m thinking of one play in particular where the guard had the angle on him, came off of a deuce block, had him right in his sights and Josh was able to take on the hit, duck and get in on the tackle. The run bled for 3 or 4 yards, but he still made the play.

“He’s doing some great things. I mean, as good as any linebacker play that I’ve been around since I’ve been here.”

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Added defensive end Mike Morris: “Josh Ross is playing at a really high level right now. We just have to meet him at that point every time. Any of the other 10 players that go on the field, we have to meet that standard.”

Cheering for brother

Harbaugh was among the millions of Americans who tuned in to watch the Baltimore Ravens face the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football. Naturally, he was cheering for his brother, John Harbaugh, who is the head coach of the Ravens.

On Monday, Harbaugh beamed when asked about the game. He then praised his brother for making the decision to keep the Baltimore offense on the field for a crucial fourth-down conversion by quarterback Lamar Jackson that ultimately decided the game.

Television cameras captured John Harbaugh asking Lamar if he wanted to go for it, and the clip quickly went viral.

“I know that he knew it was the right thing to do,” Jim Harbaugh said. “And I think he was getting the double buy-in from Lamar. And obviously Lamar is just so great. Once he had that double buy-in from Lamar then, you know, they were prepared and confident and got it. That’s all he needed was that double buy-in from Lamar and knew they would get it.

“What a game. What an unbelievable game last night. People say no one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills. But nobody circles the wagons like the Baltimore Ravens.”

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Jim Harbaugh explains how Michigan football is different