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How Jim Harbaugh fixed Michigan’s offensive woes

In the very first days of what has thus far been a pivotal year, Jim Harbaugh’s phone buzzed regularly. It filled with messages of unsolicited advice and undertones of growing impatience.

Michigan lost its third straight football game on New Year’s Day, a 26-19 Outback Bowl defeat to South Carolina in which the Wolverines’ running game managed a measly 74 yards on the ground. They averaged 87.4 rushing yards per game in their five losses in 2017. The well-intentioned callers and texters told Harbaugh he had their support and then told him what he surely already knew, what anyone with a television set and the patience to watch all three hours of the team’s season finale knew: Michigan’s offense was in need of an overhaul.

Harbaugh also knew he would remain committed to running the ball. This much was non-negotiable. He said in his first days back at Michigan that getting all the various aspects of a rushing attack on the same page would be the most vexing and time-consuming process of a rebuild in Ann Arbor. Forget about the quick-fix solutions found elsewhere in the playbook and the ever-shrinking patience among fan bases. The run-first mentality was baked into Harbaugh’s DNA, and sustainable success at Michigan would arrive on foot with an escort of five capable offensive linemen clearing its path.

“Feel very strongly about it,” Harbaugh said a week ago. “The time it takes is the time it takes. It costs what it costs.”

Those words are music to the ears of the old guard at Michigan. The group of Bo Schembechler disciples who helped steer Harbaugh back to his alma mater four years ago thought that attitude was what made their native son the right man to bring the Wolverines back to the top of college football. After three seasons of watching other teams play for Big Ten championships, though, it was taking quite a bit of time, and everyone in college football was acutely aware of the cost.

When Harbaugh needed a new defensive coordinator a few years ago, he hunted down the leader of the nation’s top-ranked defense, Don Brown, and offered him the job. This time around, with chronic issues on the offensive line in need of fixing, the solution found him with some help from those deep ties to football at Michigan.

While Jim Harbaugh’s phone buzzed regularly in early January, it was his father who received the call that would eventually bring Ed Warinner to Michigan. Jack Harbaugh got to know high school coaching legend Tony Versaci many years ago while working as an assistant on Schembechler’s staff at Michigan. Versaci happened to have a niece who married an offensive line coach she met while working in the Michigan State football offices more than 30 years ago. Perhaps, Versaci thought, Jack’s son might want to talk to him.

Weeks earlier, John Ghindia — a former teammate of Jim Harbaugh’s who played on the line at Michigan — had planted a seed with Warinner that Michigan could use his help. Harbaugh still had his longtime assistant Tim Drevno coaching the offensive line, but he was open to having a conversation.

Warinner started in January at Michigan as a senior offensive analyst. Despite three decades of experience and the steady flow of award winners and NFL starters he produced at Notre Dame and Ohio State in recent years, he didn’t mind leaving a coaching job at Minnesota to serve as an analyst in Ann Arbor.

“I came here with no expectations [of being promoted]. I wanted to be a part of this program,” Warinner said. “… In this business you’ve got to prove yourself every day.”

Beyond giving his well-traveled wife the chance to live near family, Warinner’s interest in Michigan has its own deep roots. The veteran line coach spent his early career surrounded by limbs of the Wolverine coaching tree. He worked with former Schembechler assistants closely during nine years at Army and they filled him with a longstanding respect for the program.

“When you’re around those guys, first of all you find out what kind of people they are,” Warinner said. “Great guys, great football coaches that love this place, loved living here and loved working here. Why wouldn’t you want a chance to do that?”

It probably doesn’t hurt either that Michigan offers an annual chance to beat Ohio State, a team that unceremoniously parted ways with Warinner after a 31-0 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff two years ago.

Less than two months after Warinner arrived on campus, Drevno returned to Southern California and Harbaugh handed the reins to his offensive line to the newcomer. Warinner was ecstatic.

He inherited a group he says could best be described as lacking in confidence. Harbaugh sat in on their meetings and said Warinner’s simple, direct teaching style reminded him of Barney the purple dinosaur. Toddlers could understand these blocking schemes if Warinner was there to explain them.

After an uninspiring debut against Notre Dame, the Wolverines’ offensive line started to show steady improvement. In October, a cadre of former all-conference and championship-winning Michigan linemen gathered in Ann Arbor in hopes of seeing a more physical team. They were impressed.

The same voices that filled up Harbaugh’s phone 10 months earlier sang the praises of Warinner and told old stories during a practice visit one day before the Wolverines played Wisconsin. The next evening they were treated to one of Michigan’s most dominant performances on the line of scrimmage in a decade. Warinner’s group steamrollered the Badgers for 320 rushing yards en route to a comfortable win.

“It just makes you so much more confident knowing you have all these greats behind you watching you every week and rooting for you,” co-captain and offensive guard Ben Bredeson told reporters after the game. “Having them out there for this game and for the offensive line to have a great game like we were able to do, it was the only way we could say thank you to them.”

Michigan has continued to seal wins with the running game on the 10-game winning streak it rides into a top-10 matchup with Ohio State this weekend. The Wolverines are averaging 219 rushing yards per game and have cut the number of sacks they allowed a year ago nearly in half this season.

“Ed Warinner has done a great job,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh now stands one win away from competing for his first Big Ten title as a head coach. A victory over No. 10 Ohio State in Columbus this weekend will help Harbaugh meet the high bar set for him four years ago, one that seemed further away than ever less than a year ago.

Warinner helped build the large gap between Michigan and Ohio State while developing a dominant offensive line in the first five years of Urban Meyer’s tenure with the Buckeyes. He has played an even more crucial role in closing the gap throughout 2018. Saturday afternoon will provide Warinner a chance at some redemption on his former home turf and another opportunity to see how far the Wolverines have come.

“It’ll be emotional,” Warinner said. “It’s a big game for the University of Michigan. It’s a big game for me.”

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