Michigan players have spoken regularly during the past two years about how they believe their new coaching staff's professional approach to running the team was getting them ready for a future in football. NFL scouts evidently are starting to agree.
Fourteen former Wolverines received invites to the NFL combine at the end of the month, setting a school record and lending some credence to one of the football program's major recruiting pitches. Michigan, which will have more players at the event than any other team, matches Ohio State's 14-man contingent from a year ago. So add one more data point to the argument that Jim Harbaugh & Co. are slowly closing the gap on their rival in Columbus.
Starting at the top, the program's NFL experience has been a much-discussed selling point since Harbaugh's arrival. He had a decorated pro career as a player, and when he took the Michigan job, he brought several coaches to Ann Arbor who helped him lead the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. Seven of the 10 coaches on staff have played and/or coached in the NFL.
Secondary coaches Mike Zordich and Brian Smith share common roots with the Philadelphia Eagles. Together they helped send four of their defensive backs to the combine this year -- five if you include Jabrill Peppers, who spent a healthy amount of time playing a safety role for the nation's top passing defense last season.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan added two new staff members with experience as NFL offensive coordinators in the past several weeks. Pep Hamilton, most recently of the Cleveland Browns, replaced Jedd Fisch as the team's passing-game coordinator. Michael Johnson, who coached Harbaugh at the tail end of his playing career, is expected to take a support staff role for the Wolverines in the very near future.
Some of the credit for this year's deep draft class belongs to former coach Brady Hoke. He and his staff recruited all 14 of the players on their way to Indianapolis at the end of this month. Not for nothing, but Hoke's first two recruiting classes in Ann Arbor had almost identical rankings to Harbaugh's first two classes. Hoke was 19-7 on the field in those first two seasons. Harbaugh is 20-6. The progress feels different, though, because of the obvious development many of Hoke's recruits have undergone since the new staff's arrival.
That's why the huge group headed to the NFL combine is as good of a sign as any in the past two offseasons that the program is in fact closing the gap on its Big Ten rivals since hiring a new coaching staff. Harbaugh has done plenty of things to make Michigan more attractive since his arrival. He spearheaded the fundraising for a planned $21 million weight room renovation that the university's board of regents will vote on this week. He helped secure a unique apparel contract with Jumpman, and he has kept the football program squarely in the spotlight through one device or another for much of the past two years.
None of this, of course, means much of anything if Michigan can't translate off-field progress into wins on the field against the likes of Ohio State and other conference championship contenders. As nice as it is to have 14 players heading to the NFL combine, this isn't the trip to Lucas Oil Stadium that anyone had in mind at the start of the 2016 season. It's another tangible sign of the coaching staff producing results on one of their goals. Bigger goals exist, but for mid-February the combine announcement is a victory.