For first-year Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh, confidence will be vital

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh doesn’t necessarily show it, but he says he’s confident in his ability to coach a new position.

He has to be confident. There’s no other choice.

Harbaugh has never coached running backs before this season. He’s never played at running back. Now, he’s coaching the position for the No. 11 team in the country.

It’s imperative that Harbaugh gives off a sense that he knows exactly what he’s doing.

“I hope I’ve adapted quickly,” said Harbaugh, who coached Michigan’s tight ends and special teams in his first two seasons in Ann Arbor. “The group’s responded well to what we’ve asked them to do and I’ve had a lot of fun working with them. Such good kids, they work so hard that it makes your job as a coach really easy. They want to be great and they’re always looking for more and a way to do better. So, as a coach, that makes your job easier.”

But what about Harbaugh, personally? Has his confidence grown in the seven months he’s been on the job as running backs coach?

“No,” Harbaugh answered.

Clarification: Harbaugh’s confidence hasn’t plummeted, but it hasn’t shot through the roof. Harbaugh remains even-keel, even if he faces the uncertainty of, “How, exactly, will he do this job?”

“I’ve felt confident in what I’ve done before, and I still do now,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh has skilled players. He has a strong coaching support system. Personal confidence is imperative.

A coaching path

The oldest son of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, Jay Harbaugh has had a unique path in coaching, and not just because of his last name or the nature of the family business. (Though he even makes a nepotism joke in his Twitter bio.) At 28, he’s one of the younger assistant coaches in Division I football.

He was undergraduate assistant at Oregon State (2008-11) and an offensive quality control coach with the Baltimore Ravens (2012-14), where he worked for his uncle, John, who enters his 10th season as the Ravens head coach.

“He’s studied the game,” Karan Higdon, a junior running back, said during Michigan’s spring practices. “[Harbaugh] knows that he didn’t play the position, so he took a different perspective, studied the game. He’s watched films of NFL running backs and been able to carry those techniques with us. And it’s been working.”

Along the way, Harbaugh has sought advice from his elders, such as Ravens running backs coach Thomas Hammock and Miami Dolphins tight ends coach Shane Day (a quality control staffer at Michigan in 2006).

“And a bunch of other high school, college and pro coaches,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a long list. I tend to just talk to anybody I can, about anything. You never know when you’re going to find something helpful.”

Skills and schemes

The best part of coaching the running backs, Harbaugh said, is working with a skilled group of players.

“They’re unselfish within a selfish position, where everyone wants carries, everyone wants to be the guy, the big man on campus. But they all root for each other’s success.”

Harbaugh’s challenge: On certain plays, with so much talent, who do you put in?

“I’m really fortunate to have a great group, so that’s a definite good problem to have,” he said.

Harbaugh’s first test will be to set a mandate for a position group. Michigan ran for 2,768 yards last season, even without a distinguished No. 1 running back.

“In terms of the rotation question that I’m sure you’re getting at, we have a lot of capable guys and they all bring something different to the table,” Harbaugh said. “Not every run or every pass concept is best for all of them. There’s going to be a little bit of specialization.”

In a move of confidence, he gave some indication of when we’ll find out what his plans are for his position group.

Yet, in the typical secretive fashion of college football coaches in August, he didn’t offer much.

“In terms of how it actually works out?” Harbaugh said. “You’ll find out when everyone else does.”

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