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Jim Harbaugh bolsters depth, adds speed to the defense with recent position changes

UNLV v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

As the old Bo Schembechler saying goes, “no man is more important than the team.”

Jim Harbaugh, a Schembechler disciple, embodies this saying more than anyone and has been known to move players around depending on the needs of the team - and just for the practice.

This season, Harbaugh has announced that three different players have switched positions in an effort to build depth across the board.

Redshirt junior Drake Harris announced in May he was moving from wide receiver to cornerback. More recently, freshman Brad Hawkins has moved from wide receiver to safety. And, Harbaugh has also told reporters freshman linebacker Ben Mason will move to fullback full time.

The position changes come at a convenient time for the Wolverines, with plenty of off-season yet to go and 42 seniors from last year’s squad to replace.

From Pass Catchers to Defenders

Harris, a 6-foot-4, 188 pound, gazelle from Grand Rapids was once thought to be Michigan’s next great wide receiver, but has battled constant injuries since coming to Ann Arbor in 2014.

Finally healthy in 2016, Harris showed some glimpses, but still fought for playing time behind Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. However, even with their departures, Harris’ future was in doubt with strong recruiting at the position each of the last two seasons. (Don’t forget, before the fabled 2017 receiver class, Michigan added Kekoa Crawford, Eddie McDoom, Nate Johnson and a tight end-receiver hybrid in Nick Eubanks in 2016.)

Fortunately, Michigan had some depth concerns at cornerback and Harris was happy to make the flip. His long frame and blazing speed should bode well in a secondary that is being built on size and more size.

Harris showed in high school a unique ability to high-point the football in the air and has incredible instincts to go with his athleticism.

He will compete with sophomores David Long Jr. and Lavert Hill and freshmen Ambry Thomas and Benjamin St. Juste for playing time. Expect Harris to contribute as a backup on the outside and to matchup with team’s largest receivers.

Along with Harris, incoming freshman Brad Hawkins is moving to the secondary as well. However, Hawkins will play safety rather than corner for the Maize & Blue. The 6-foot-1, 201-pounder from Camden, New Jersey was supposed to join the Wolverines last season, but had to enroll in prep school to bring up his grades.

According to MLive’s Nick Baumgardner, Harbaugh said Defensive Coordinator Don Brown was instrumental in the switch.

Hawkins is extremely gifted with the football in his hands and can take the top off the defense. He seems to fit best at free safety, where he can defend the deep ball and makes plays in the passing game.

Michigan could also use Hawkins’ skills on special teams in the return game.

Next In Line

While Harbaugh was a very successful quarterback in his heyday, his favorite position might just be fullback — a position that doesn’t get much recognition but is extremely effective in the college game.

In 2015, Sione Houma and Joe Kerridge led the group. Last season, Khalid Hill and Henry Poggi took the position to the next level with their ability to block, run and catch at a high level. Hill alone scored 12 touchdowns. Both those guys return.

Mason, a freshman from Newtown, Connecticut, was supposed to play linebacker for Don Brown, but will bring his bruising skills to the offensive side of the ball.

Michigan’s depth at linebacker made the transition an easy one for Mason, who will most likely start at fullback when Hill and Poggi are gone in 2018.

Mason, a 6-foot-2, 247-pounder, plays with a rugged, throw back style and truly has a fullback’s mentality. His physicality in practice is already impressing Jim Harbaugh, per reports.

These players may not make a giant impact this season, but they help shore up depth and protect the team from devastating injuries - while encouraging competition from other guys. They also add speed to the defense by taking away one of the defense’s less athletic linebackers and replacing him with two four-star receivers, known for their speed, in the secondary.

Michigan is one of the youngest teams in the country, so more position changes before the fall could still be in store.