Jim McElwain stood in front of cameras and reporters or the first time in Michigan gear this week wearing the unburdened expression of a professor on sabbatical.
For the first time since 2011, McElwain is not spending his offseason as the CEO of a college football enterprise. He spent another five seasons before then behind the wheel as an offensive coordinator at Alabama and Fresno State. The 33-year coaching veteran whose three-year stint running the Florida Gators ended with a flop last fall joined Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines staff as an offensive assistant in late February.
The questions about his role (will he call plays or make changes to the Wolverines’ attack?) and his impact (Florida didn’t finish among the top 100 offenses in college football once during his tenure in Gainesville) followed quickly. McElwain talked as much about learning as he did teaching during his first opportunity to address some of those items Monday night in Ann Arbor.
“Coach Harbuagh is a guy that I’ve followed for a long time, and the opportunity to come and learn from him and see how someone else does it and puts it together has been a lot of fun,” McElwain said.
McElwain, despite his lengthy resume, parried any notion Monday that his responsibilities in Michigan would be any larger than his title — wide receivers coach.
McElwain is the most prominent name to join Michigan’s staff during an offseason overhaul in the wake of a disappointing offensive season in 2017. The Wolverines parted ways with longtime Harbaugh assistant and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, added two other new coaches (Ed Warriner and Sherrone Moore) and briefly hired another (Dan Enos) before he left for an opening at Alabama.
Harbaugh hasn’t named an offensive coordinator from the new group yet. He said at the outset of spring practice that play-calling and other offensive decisions would remain a “collaborative process” like they have been during the past three seasons at Michigan.
“We’ve had tremendous collaboration on the offensive side with the staff,” Harbaugh said last month. “It’s been a huge focus for our team. Been doing it for weeks and months now and [I] really like the way it’s come together. We’re getting contributions from so many great coaches on the offensive side, they’re working great together.”
Harbaugh has been and will remain heavily involved in shaping his team’s offensive identity as the head coach. The group’s struggle to find its groove last fall, though, made it worth questioning whether the democratic approach to play-calling and making decisions he has with the assistants on that side of the ball was part of the problem.
The turnover this offseason opened the door for restructuring. If anyone is going to be more at the forefront of that group going forward — Harbaugh has preferred to keep the inner-workings of his staff’s specific roles in forming the offense murky — it appears the leader will be Pep Hamilton, the coordinator of the passing game who joined the staff a year ago.
“He’s kind of running it,” McElwain said Monday. “And like I said, we’re just here to help.”
McElwain’s time will instead be focused on coaching a maturing wide receiver group brimming with potential that never fully surfaced in 2017. His group this spring is headlined by veteran Grant Perry and a pair of sophomores that Michigan is hoping will blossom into game-changing playmakers this year. Donovan Peoples-Jones was a five-star prospect from Detroit who showed more of that game-breaking ability on special teams than offense last season. Tarik Black outplayed Peoples-Jones (and everyone else at the position) last September before breaking his foot three games into his college career.
Impressive athleticism isn’t worth much if those receivers can’t get the ball in their hands regularly. The ability to catch anything they can get their hands on isn’t worth much if they never get open in the first place. That was the root of the issue last season for a unit that produced only three receiving touchdowns. Michigan has played 45 consecutive quarters of football without a wide receiver catching a touchdown pass.
“Well, you’re not going to catch it if you’re not open,” McElwain said when asked about his focus. “The No. 1 thing we do, we start our practice with, we’ve had great work with our secondary in some individual release drills just trying to help our guys put some things in their toolbox to help them be successful. So far I’ve seen a lot of progress.”
A change at quarterback — Michigan is still waiting to hear if Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson will be allowed to play in the fall — could help solve the problems with the passing game. The return of Black should help, too. But helping the receiver group reach its potential will fall largely on McElwain.
If he’s successful, they have the talent to transform Michigan’s offense into one of the Big Ten’s best. That impact would be as consequential as anything else McElwain’s experience as a head coach or offensive coordinator could bring to the table.
McElwain’s stay in Michigan might not be a long one. He said Monday that he’s already picked up on a few things he can use if he’s given another shot to be a head coach in the future. He might not take a leadership role on the overhauled coaching staff. He does have a chance, though, to put his fingerprints on a significant change for a Wolverine passing attack that proved to be one of the program’s weakest links a year ago.