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Coaching Spotlight: Jim McElwain

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There are new coaches everywhere around the Michigan program. Today, we spotlight one Jim Harbaugh has become quite familiar with over the last few years.

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The bookend to the 2015 season was spectacular for the Michigan Wolverines.

In Harbaugh’s first season as head coach, the Wolverines not only took down an SEC East beast in the Florida Gators, but they absolutely beheaded them in a 41-7 slaughtering in the Citrus Bowl. It was so bad, the Gators’ Twitter account sent this out once the game ended.

The beginning of the 2017 season was another high of highs the Wolverines.

Michigan, coming off a heart-breaking Orange Bowl loss to the Florida State Seminoles, physically dominated the Gators once again to the tune of a 33-17 victory in Arlington, Texas. Despite the close score, there was never really any doubt who was going to win.

Florida’s head coach those two games? None other than new Michigan wide receivers coach Jim McElwain.

So if the boys in blue mopped the floor with McElwain and the Gators twice in three years, why was this a good hire for Harbaugh?

It gives Michigan’s wide receivers something they didn’t have last year — a positional coach.

The 2017 wide receiver group was one of the youngest in the country — seeing playing time from three true freshmen, three sophomores, one junior and two seniors. Those two seniors, Drake Harris and Maurice Ways, transferred this offseason and had a combined 4 receptions for 17 yards in 2017. Not something you like to see out of your veterans, even if they hadn’t had much playing time to begin with.

McElwain gives young studs like Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black someone to consistently work with. Someone to be in their ear when they mess up and tell them what they need to hear. Someone to properly teach them the position.

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The receivers need someone like McElwain to keep them in check and remind them they aren’t in high school anymore. Remind them not every route they run is going to be against a DIII cornerback — or worse — anymore.

This is college football. This is the Big Ten. This is the time to learn and develop — and that’s exactly what McElwain will help them do.

Coaching experience

McElwain has been a wide receivers coach four times before. His first time was at Eastern Washington from 1987-94. He began as a graduate assistant before being promoted to the quarterbacks/wide receivers coach in ‘87. I wasn’t able to find specific offensive stats during his time there, but his team did win the Big Sky Championship in ‘92. He also coached up the Eagles’ leading receiver of all time — Tony Brooks (2,969 receiving yards).

His next stop was Montana State. He was the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach — and special teams coach, actually — from 1995-99. McElwain coached up the No. 1 scoring offense in the Big Sky Conference in ‘98 with 31.6 points per game.

He then coached wide receivers at the University of Louisville from 2000-02. He coached four All-Conference receivers during his time there — Deion Branch, Arnold Jackson, Zek Parker and Damien Dorsey.

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McElwain’s first season at Louisville saw the Cardinals score 33.75 points per game and 27 touchdowns by receivers and tight ends. Louisville then had another 23 receiving touchdowns in 2001. The year 2002 saw a second straight season of more than 1,000 yards from Branch, and 25 receiving touchdowns from receivers and tight ends.

He then took the wide receivers job at Michigan State from 2003-05. Things were a bit different McElwain’s first year at MSU compared to his first at Lousiville.

MSU saw heavy ball distribution out of its receivers in 2003, with the leading receiver having 692 yards. The 2004 season was a bit hectic for the Spartans, having three different quarterbacks throw for just 14 touchdowns, with the leading receiver having just 444 yards. The ‘05 season was a bit more fluid, with Drew Stanton throwing 22 touchdowns and the leading receiver — Jerramy Scott — having 722 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns.

The differences between his time at Louisville and MSU are noticeable. Developing a stud like Branch is impressive. Branch always had the talent, but McElwain really elevated his game and helped him get to the next level. The talent in East Lansing wasn’t as strong, but he still got decent-to-good play out of his receivers during his three years there — despite John L. Smith doing the head coaching there at the time.

What does this all mean?

Given the stats we have and his track record, McElwain has found success at several stops. He’s also seen massive failures — MSU’s ‘04 season, and of course his final season as the Gators’ head coach — but that shouldn’t discount him from the experience and ability to coach up receivers like Branch and get the absolute best out of them.

Michigan wide receivers combined for three touchdowns in 2017 — the last receiver touchdown coming in Week 2. This is unacceptable, and improvements must be made for the Wolverines to compete in the Big Ten East this season.

Luckily, I believe McElwain will be able to fine tune the receivers and have them play at their absolute best. I strongly expect better things from Michigan’s receivers in 2018.