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How Jay Harbaugh has helped shape a great special teams unit at Michigan

A unit that has the potential to be elite.

Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images

“Special teams for this football team I think is really one of their strongest assets as a team. They really have one of the finest special team groups I’ve seen in many years,” Colorado State head coach Jay Norvell told the media this week.

Norvell’s had a long look at Michigan teams ahead of the Colorado State vs. Michigan matchup on Saturday. It’s easy to agree with Norvell’s assessment. Michigan did a lot of great things in 2021 with special teams coordinator/safeties coach Jay Harbaugh at the helm.

As good as Michigan’s special teams unit was last year, and they were very good (ranked No. 1 by analyst Phil Steele), Harbaugh gets the message across to his players that the unit has to get better. The bar is high, and when missed opportunities come up during film study, Harbaugh and his players don’t shy away from pointing them out and getting to the root of the problem.

“We try to be a really self-critical unit and team in general. We want to be a team that loves just the brutal facts,” Harbaugh said. “Looking in the mirror after every single day and just confronting, ‘OK, this is exactly what we need to do better, this is what we’re not doing well enough.’ I think that really great players and great teams are like that. They crave that brutal honesty. And, we had some success last year, but we didn’t play nearly well enough in some of the bigger games. And then also, there’s just a lot of opportunities that we had for big plays that we left out on the field. So, we’ve been very hard on ourselves this whole offseason. And we want to take what we did last year and make it even better.”

Special teams ace Caden Kolesar told the media this week how much preparation goes into Michigan’s attack on special teams each and every week.

“Coach Jay, and the analysts, J.B. Brown and Bradford Banta, they do an amazing job. Like, it’s crazy,” Kolesar said. “We come in on a Monday or Tuesday of game week, and everything’s just laid out for us. And it's really complex things but they make it simple so everybody can understand it — the schemes and then they also just put an emphasis on it.”

Michigan had a Lou Groza Award winner last season in Jake Moody, there was a trick play that resulted in a kickoff return touchdown, Cornelius Johnson blocked two punts, punter Brad Robbins second-best yards per punt average in Michigan history with 46.3. Every facet of Michigan’s special teams has talent, and the creativity in scheme always has the other team on their toes. However, it isn’t just talent and scheme, it’s the focus that goes along with it that sets Michigan apart.

“I would say nobody focuses on special teams more than we do. Obviously, it’s very important. Games can be decided by special teams, whether you know it or not,” Moody said. “Whether it’s a game-winning field goal or a punt getting down at the five rather than being a touchback.”

Other coaches in the building have taken notice of Harbaugh’s coaching techniques. Tight ends coach Grant Newsome said Harbaugh is the “smartest coach in the building”.

“I think everyone in the building goes to Jay for one thing or another, just how smart and how talented he is.”

Linebacker George Helow had similar comments about Harbaugh. Helow praised Harbaugh’s teaching techniques in meetings.

“I love going to Jay Harbaugh’s meetings every day,” Helow said on Wednesday. “There’s so much teaching that goes on in his meetings, he does a tremendous job of keeping all the players engaged. And you watch our special teams, those guys play hard.”

Harbaugh wants Michigan to play hard from the opening kickoff this year. Colorado State has a talented special teams unit in its own right. Harbaugh has his unit aware that there could be pump fakes, field goal fakes, and other wrinkles thrown Michigan’s way.

“There’s a lot to prepare for and it’s just an awesome challenge because they’re well coached, they have good players, and it’s gonna demand right out of the gate that we’re at our best. We’re pumped up about it.”

Whether Michigan’s special teams unit is indeed special once again this season remains to be seen, but it sure sounds like they’ll be prepared any given Saturday.