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Lessons learned from the first four seasons of the Jim Harbaugh era

Michigan is back in the national conversation, but still has not gotten over the hump yet. Here are some things they’ve learned they have to do.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Harbaugh has turned around the Michigan Football program since he arrived in Ann Arbor in 2015 after a near-decade of ineptitude and embarrassments on the field.

The job is not quite done yet, as the program still has yet to win a Big Ten Championship or even make a trip to Indianapolis. We have seen the potential and know that the ingredients are there, but some critical lessons along the way have been learned about what it will take for Michigan to achieve the goals it sets for itself at the outset of the season.

Here is a handful of things we — and they — have learned about themselves the last four years and how it has been addressed when it has come into question.

(Editor’s note: This is in no particular order)

The best quarterback has to be made ready to play

Generally speaking, this has never been a major issue in Ann Arbor, but one cannot help but feel like if Brandon Peters was made ready earlier in the 2017 season, Michigan may have been able to add another win or two to its resume (especially in the game against Michigan State). Now, part of that is on Peters (who transferred to Illinois prior to the start of this season) and if he was not doing what he had to do to be made ready, that is one thing. But he was clearly more talented than Wilton Speight and John O’Korn and it took nearly half a season for Harbaugh and the now-departed Pep Hamilton to realize that. Their issues on offense were part of a larger schematic and philosophical problem, but the hesitance to pull the trigger on a younger signal-caller hurt them that year.

Offensive lines, teams in general start being built in the weight room

When Harbaugh brought Tim Drevno onto his initial coaching staff, he brought with him a guy who had a track record of coaching offensive lineman and developing them at a decent clip. For whatever reason through three years, it was always good enough at times, but never great and rarely effective in big games. Drevno’s departure was part of an offseason of change in 2018 that saw Harbaugh not only elevate Ed Warriner from an analyst position to offensive line coach, but they also changed strength and conditioning coaches and brought in Ben Herbert, who had spent the five seasons prior at Arkansas.

Michigan has always been able to get blue chip talent in the door, but when you look at how they have looked physically on the field as opposed to some of the elite programs in college football, they just were not as developed or as strong. They took a big step forward in that department last year and it helped them flip the switch and become one of the better offensive lines in the country. The physical transformations of the team in general was greatly improved, as well. Michigan was pushed around and bullied quite a bit in 2017 and Harbaugh was having no more of that, which brings us to our next topic.

If Harbaugh sees a flaw, he addresses it

For as much grief as Harbaugh gets about being someone who is “stubborn” and “hard to work with,” he has actually proven to be pretty open-minded about changes that need to be made during the offseason. Is he guilty of sticking to his guns in the regular season? You bet he is at times. However, the last two offseasons in general have seen him change who runs the weight program, a backdoor upgrade in the form of Warriner after Drevno left, improving the quarterback position through the transfer market and now realizing it was time to hand control of the offense over to someone with younger and fresher ideas in new coordinator Josh Gattis.

In theory, everything he has done the last two years are exactly what needed to happen. It did not change the result in Michigan’s two toughest games last year, but on paper, it was the right thing to do. Contrary to popular belief, he does not always live in a bubble and has shown a willingness to try new things, so he deserves some credit for that.

It’s time to get modern or stay on the verge of a breakout

Piggybacking off of the previous topic once again, the defense’s historic collapse at the end of 2018 overshadowed the fact that the offense was so clearly broken and outdated. The Wolverines have athletics and playmakers all over the field, but Harbaugh was still dead-set on putting their heads down and running full speed into a brick wall. That’s where Gattis comes in and Harbaugh has completely handed over the reigns to him, which is a big deal and something that people still do not fully believe is happening.

Now, Michigan is not going to abandon the power run game, especially near the goal line, but what they are doing is making a conscious effort to get the ball in the hands of their best players as much as they can. We should not expect them to look like a Big-12 offense, and that is not what they’re trying to build, but there should be a bit more of an element of explosiveness and finishing a few more drives with touchdowns instead of field goals.

Adaptability is key on Saturdays

Personally, this is probably the biggest one on the list. Michigan has lost a lot of big games either to lack of adequate preparedness or an unwillingness to make adjustments in-game. Don Brown is getting a ton of flack right now for how the season ended and he should be, but generally speaking when there are adjustments to be made, he’s done a nice job. We have no idea how the offense will look, but one would think with so many different things they have the potential to do in this new system, they might be able to zig and zag depending on what the defense gives them. Harbaugh and Brown are notoriously stubborn guys, so in the big moments the spotlight will be shining pretty brightly on them this year. We will wait and see what happens.

There could certainly be more here, but the above is what immediately comes to mind. Is there something that you think belongs on this list? Start the discussion in the comments below.