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Tuesday Morning Brews (3/3/15)

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Grading Michigan's Coaching Hires

Often, we're absorbed by the players. The stars who produce touchdowns in assembly-line fashion, the linebackers who deflect passes in midair and the defensive linemen who catch them, the dedicated cornerbacks who make turnovers out of nothing, the kick return track stars, the future legends, the big guys.

But in the end, it's not the players that matter most. It's who coaches them. Johnny Manziel left College Station, and Kevin Sumlin simply found another quarterback to run his high-powered offense. The Buckeyes lost Miller and Barrett, but they still had Urban Meyer. Marcus Mariota is gone, but Mark Helfrich was always going to pull something at least half-decent out of his hat. If there's one rule, it's this: don't underestimate the really good coaches.

Recruits like Grant Newsome and Zach Gentry got more attention, but Michigan's biggest off-season additions were Greg Jackson and John Baxter, Kevin Tolbert and D.J. Durkin. Those are the guys whose job it is to mold steel out of clay year in and year out. So, as an extended hello to Michigan's new coaching staff, we'll delve into Michigan's new faces on the sideline.

Jim Harbaugh, Head coach, Quarterbacks coach


Um, duh. Would Michigan fans have been happy with Les Miles or Bob Stoops? Probably, but on top of Jim Harbaugh being more successful, there are some small concerns with Miles (program integrity back at OSU, ability to develop quarterbacks) or Stoops (in-game decisions, brother as DC) that Harbaugh doesn't have.

Plus, his ability to coach quarterbacks is unparalleled. Simply put, you don't get star quarterbacks coming before the Combine if you aren't considered the best.

D.J. Durkin, Defensive coordinator, Linebackers coach


An understudy to Will Muschamp for four years, Durkin has also coached under Harbaugh, Urban Meyer, and current Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. He's 37.

What Durkin does with his next chapter will be telling. He's already spent time with some of the most innovative football minds in the game, and now he can implement his own vision of a dominant, modern defense. Michigan might not have Durkin for more than a few seasons - he's already worked as a head coach at a major program - but there's a great chance that Michigan burnishes its legacy of great defensive players while Durkin is here.

Tim Drevno, Offensive coordinator, Run game coordinator, Offensive line coach


In March of 2014, Bleacher Report wrote about why San Francisco's offensive line was the best in the NFL. No position coach was ever mentioned, but Tim Drevno departed that off-season to spend a year at Southern Cal. Shortly after, the wheels started falling off.

"While preseason often doesn't tell much about a team, sometimes trends and red flags that crop up during the summer carry over into the regular season. If 2014 has told us anything, it's that the 49ers offensive line could potentially be a big problem."

Then, in November: "The 49ers are tied as the fourth-worst team in terms of sacks allowed with 32. ... The 49ers offense has also been horrendous in the red zone."

Obviously there were multiple factors that contributed to the decline, from play-calling to defensive shortcomings. But the biggest piece, of course, was Drevno. Drevno spent the year at USC, transforming USC's young talent into a grown, effective line, before leaving for Ann Arbor. Now, he gets to work his magic on a line in desperate need of good coaching.

Greg Mattison, Defensive line coach


Few expected a return for Mattison, who publicly defended Brady Hoke at the end of the 2014 campaign. Instead, Mattison agreed to a demotion and a pay cut, and will work to build up a line that might have been the best-coached part of the team for the last four seasons. Basically, the defensive line is the safest bet on the roster.

The biggest challenge for Mattison will be establishing the pass rush that has seemingly eluded all of those well-coached teams. Against the run, this team will be stout as always. However, Mattison will earn his pay by getting more disruption from the interior, as well as finding some solutions from guys like Taco Charlton and Mario Ojemudia.

John Baxter, Special teams coordinator


Baxter has a long history of spectacular special teams play, starting with Fresno State in the late '90s and continuing with USC. Whether it's blocked kicks, stifling opponents' kick returns, finding more yards in his team's kick returns, converting field goals, or scoring touchdowns, Baxter's special teams have been able to perform at a high level.

But it isn't just his special teams that stands out on his resume. He's also excelled at getting students to perform in the classroom. Here was what he had to say about his Academic Gameplan:

I sorely underperformed as a freshman and sophomore in high school, which made it almost impossible to get into almost any college I wanted to go to. I got into one school on an appeal. I really had to work hard to stay in school. Through mimicking and copying the habits of what the more effective guys on the football team were doing academically, I kind of came up with a little routine for doing things. Then when I became a graduate assistant at Iowa State, I started realizing that some of these underperforming students were underperforming in the same ways I was. Then what I learned is that underperforming students do the same things wrong. To get good grades is an execution issue.

I began to help some of the guys, showing them the system I used in college. It sort of grew, kind of like a fungus in the back, dark rooms of these buildings. Just me and some guys.

When I went (to Fresno State), we were ranked 112 out of 112 in graduation rate - dead last in the country. I started doing it there, and that's about the time I realized it had nothing to do with football; it just had to do with students. I published it in '99. And I've just continued to do it ever since.

When I (first) went there, there was an average student who shouldn't have been average named Lane Kiffin going through it. I wouldn't say underperforming. But then again I would, for his intelligence level. He had back-to-back over-3.0 semesters and did great.

Lane Kiffin ended up hiring him at USC.

Jedd Fisch, Passing game coordinator, Wide receivers coach


Fisch has been an NFL position coach at both quarterback and wide receiver, plus an offensive coordinator in both college and the pros. His stint with Jacksonville may not have ended the way he wanted, but this is a phenomenal resume for a position coach and passing game coordinator. Fisch will be preparing Michigan's receivers to understand how to attack the defenses they're running into, and also contribute to a game-plan that will have Tim Drevno's signature toughness and the most up-to-date passing concepts.

Kevin Tolbert, Director of strength and conditioning


This is actually a return to Ann Arbor for Kevin Tolbert, who spent time here as an assistant under Lloyd Carr. From there, he went on to spending time with the Detroit Lions, Stanford Cardinal, and San Francisco 49ers. He was well-respected at all those programs.

Now, Tolbert inherits a team that's had an unfortunate number of injuries over the last couple years, including ACL tears to Jake Butt, Drake Johnson, and Jake Ryan. A healthier Michigan team means as much as a stronger Michigan team, and things look good so far on both fronts: as a whole, the roster made strength gains during the winter, and practice - so far - has been injury-free.

Ty Wheatley, Running backs coach


The former #6 is one of the better running backs in Michigan's history, and went on to have a long career in the League. As Michael Strahan put it, Wheatley "could outrun the wide receivers, outlift the linemen, and outdebate anyone." Wheatley would go on to coaching, where he quickly rose to be the Buffalo Bills' running backs coach for two years.

Now, Wheatley returns home. His first task is getting Michigan's running backs to physically and mentally prepare for a season of "hard work." He'll know how to develop Michigan's athletes to use and maximize their talent - whether it's catching the ball, running hard between the tackles, or working out in space. He'll be able to connect to abrasive young men (he once was one) and get them to buy in to the program.

Greg Jackson, Secondary coach (esp. safeties)


Jackson is a bit of an unknown entity; much of his career was spent with Idaho, ULM, and Tulane. At San Francisco, he was an assistant on some very successful units. He's one of 6 coaches under 50, but Jackson gives off a slightly older and more purposeful demeanor. He knows how to play safety - he was in the League for 12 years - and he'll be a father figure for Jabrill Peppers, Jarrod Wilson, Delano Hill, and Dymonte Thomas. It's easy to see him getting safeties to play with intention and design. He speaks softly, and is a man of toughness.

Michael Zordich, Secondary coach (esp. cornerbacks)


Zordich also was an NFL safety for 12 seasons, and in fact teamed up with Greg Jackson in Philadelphia. If Jackson's resume is a bit sparse, Zordich's is even more so: a defensive assistant at the high school level as recently as 2008, Zordich rose quickly to become the Philadelphia Eagles' safeties coach, before sitting out a season and then working at Youngstown State. The Eagles' safeties performed a bit better, statistically, when he was there than not.

Some have pointed out that Zordich has almost no experience recruiting, but he should be helped by a straight-forward personality and extensive NFL experience. What's more pressing is how he develops Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling at a position he didn't play. Jim Harbaugh chose Zordich over a few other viable candidates, but this is still a wait-and-see situation.

Jay Harbaugh, Tight ends coach, Asst. special teams coordinator


Jay may end up being an absolutely phenomenal coach; he just has no discernible resume to contextualize this hire. Obviously, growing up under Jim and spending time in the Baltimore Ravens organization are huge advantages, but it's rare for a coach to make a very big impact at 25. More likely, Jay will learn as he goes, providing a sound approach and the necessary work ethic to make this pay off down the road. If Michigan's tight ends succeed - and it's likely they will, considering everyone else on the offensive staff has been an NFL coach - then Jay will have the resume he needs.

Hitting the Links Is Finding Talent

Defensive Linemen Needed

Urban Meyer came very close to having a defensive line full of five-star players, and with Michael Bennett and Noah Spence now gone, Urban Meyer will try to reload at a position that anchored his defense.

Spartans Snag Another Allen

The #6 center in the 2016 class, Matt Allen gives the Spartans two commits for 2016. They also have a four-star receiver out of New Jersey, and recently had some drama when Khalid Kareem committed and then quickly de-committed after talking to his parents.

Rutgers Gets TCU Receiver

Cam White has had issues with concussions, which is threatening his playing career. Otherwise, this is a great pickup for RU; they get a big-bodied, athletic receiver, while White will work on his Masters at a great academic institution.

TCU Replaces Defensive Coordinator With Internal Promotions

Dick Bumpas had been TCU's defensive coordinator and D-Line coach for 11 years. Baylor also suffered coaching turnover, as OC Philip Montgomery left and was replaced with Art Briles' son, Kendal.

The MMQB Roundtable: NFL Combine

This was a good collection of thoughts from SI's NFL team. Everyone sees Jameis Winston going to the Bucs with the top pick.

Justin Jackson Talks Freshman Eligibility, His Performance

Jackson is an incredibly dedicated worker, and that makes it easy to see a successful encore in his sophomore year.

More Injuries for Northwestern

It's unclear why, but injuries have been plaguing Northwestern for years now. Getting hurt is a part of the game, but it's also something that coaches have an obligation to take steps to avoid, both for the sake of their players and the team's performance.

B1G Spring Position Outlook: Secondary

Michigan isn't mentioned, but this is a position of importance. A note about the one player that Minnesota loses from their secondary: against Wisconsin, Cedric Thompson caught up to Melvin Gordon from behind and kept him from scoring a touchdown. An incredible play that didn't get enough attention at the time.

B1G Spring Position Outlook: Linebackers

Looking around for a risker but more apt 'sleeper pick' than Michigan - which has had consistently good and well-recognized linebacker play for several years - some good possibilities are Northwestern or Minnesota. The Wildcats lose three of their five main players from a year ago, but there's a chance for a little more athleticism there than in the past. Also, Minnesota loses MLB Damien Wilson to the NFL, but this group is well-coached and tough against the run.

In fact, linebacker is a strong position for the Big Ten. Penn State, Michigan, MSU, the Buckeyes, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all feature great linebackers.