Tuesday, January 31, 2017
By Mark Snyder
January 30, 2017
Matt Hasselbeck was trying to push himself in the final years of his NFL career. As a quarterback in Indianapolis, he knew it was Andrew Luck’s starting job, but he had to stay ready.
Fortunately, he had an offensive coordinator in Pep Hamilton who was with him at every step.
“What he would do with us is he would hang with us,” Hasselbeck, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, said last week of his 2 1/2 years under Hamilton. “Andrew Luck, myself and the other quarterbacks, we’d do this pretty intense warm-up before every practice, and he would do it with us. If we were running conditioning, he would do it with us. There were other guys on the team he might do abs with them after practice or he might run with them in the off-season or he might lift with a group of guys.
“You don’t get that a lot from coaches. He breaks down a barrier that sometimes exists between boss and player, coach and player.”
That probably sounds familiar as the philosophy of Jim Harbaugh, who demonstrates drills in practice and throws and catches passes in pregame warm-ups.
Now that Hamilton is the Wolverines’ new passing game coordinator, replacing Jedd Fisch, his energy is expected to invigorate the offense.
Hamilton’s time in Indy peaked with the NFL’s No. 3 offense in total yardage in 2014.
“He’s very creative, almost too creative,” Hasselbeck said of Hamilton. “One of his things he loves to say: There are no ‘can’t dos’ in this offense. A lot of times, in an offense, you’ll have a guy who’s stuck in his ways -- he’s been doing the same thing forever, his background’s in offensive line and running backs, so we’re never going to go empty backfield, we’re never going to go an extra lineman in the game. They’ve got all these ‘never gonnas.’ Pep’s a guy, he’s very proud of (saying) there’s nothing we can’t do. This week, the best thing to do is go five wide receivers, no running backs, no tight ends, that’s what we’ll do. If, the next week, we’ll go two tailbacks, no receivers and bring in extra offensive linemen, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Michigan has shown some of that flexibility over the past two years, taking Harbaugh's NFL mentality to script a game plan and introduce different plays each week, depending on the opponent. Many college offenses are consistent, week-to-week, trying to refine what they do well in the limited practice time available.
Harbaugh reportedly is telling recruits such as Alabama receiver Nico Collins that the Wolverines will incorporate more spread elements this year. That might be Hamilton’s early effect.
Unlike Fisch, Hamilton gets to begin a year with a returning quarterback starter, Wilton Speight.
“(Hamilton) absorbs information like a sponge,” Hasselbeck said. “He’s pretty smart that way. He does a nice job of communicating to the entire offense, whether it’s running backs, quarterbacks, wide receivers, offensive line. He’s a very, very bright guy. The challenge for Pep sometimes is he’s so much smarter than everybody else. The thing he can probably work on the most is he’s so smart that he has to slow down for the rest of us. It’s a great thing when you have a guy like that on a staff that’s strong, and they can really work together and collaborate together. The guy knows football. There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be a head coach someday, and he’s fun to be around.”
Hamilton’s biggest challenge as the quarterbacks/receivers coach might be to figure out which of the talented young receivers is ready to play immediately. Eddie McDoom and Kekoa Crawford showed flashes last season, and this year’s class has elite receivers in Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black as early enrollees. None of them has had a significant role in a college offense.
Hamilton’s teaching ability is one of his unique traits.
“I played 18 years -- I played 15 years in the NFL (before Indy) and I thought I had learned everything I could have learned about offense in football,” he said. “I got to Indianapolis and I learned a lot of football being around Pep and being around the guys in Indianapolis. It was fun. That made it really, really fun to learn new ways to do things. Just creative, creative stuff.”
Hamilton’s decision to leave his role as an assistant head coach with the Cleveland Browns showed Harbaugh’s pull.
It helped that Michigan is able to pay him $1 million per year, but the NFL lifestyle is easier, especially compared with working for Harbaugh. Yet he still left, just as he did in going to Stanford from the Chicago Bears in 2010.
“I think it’s a similar situation, where he believes in Jim Harbaugh, he believes in the kind of school Michigan is and he’s got to take a look at the roster and say, 'Wow, we can do something special, much like we did at Stanford,'” said Hasselbeck, who spoke at U-M's satellite camp at Indianapolis Bishop Chatard in 2016. “For that reason, it doesn’t necessarily surprise me that he went back to college.”
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