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Long practices test Michigan's endurance

Michigan’s new staff has a lot of work ahead of them in the next few months. Head coach Jim Harbaugh is trying to get a jump start on the to-do list by keeping his team on the field for as long as he possibly can.

Each of the first five practices at Michigan this spring have run for four hours, the maximum amount of time the NCAA allows for a single session. Most college coaches opt to cut their workouts shorter, leaving more time for meeting rooms and watching film. Harbaugh, known for his unorthodox ways of taxing his players while building a program, wants them on their feet and in their pads as much as possible.

“You get better at football by playing football,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the mindset there.”

Players say these first few weeks of March have included the longest stints they can remember on a field in their careers, except for maybe a hard-to-forget lightning delay against Utah last fall. The itinerary for these marathon sessions would make just about anyone who has ever put on shoulder pads bug their eyes and question its sanity.

“You can tell a high school kid or another college kid, ‘Hey, you’re going to have a four-hour practice in full pads.’ They are going to like at you like you’re a bit crazy,” said senior linebacker Joe Bolden. To me, it flies by. … You don’t think about it when you’re out there. I’ve been on my feet for like five hours straight right now and I’m not tired.”

The new coaching staff and onslaught of new information helps as a distraction, but Bolden says the head coach’s energy also plays a big role in making the long days goes by fast. Harbaugh’s well-documented enthusiasm stretches from the sidelines to social media to the breakdown lane of icy interstate highways. It’s never more apparent, though, than during these long practices.

Bolden said at times it’s as if Harbaugh is practicing with them. He jumps into three-point stances to show the technique he wants or takes minutes to guide his running backs through the precise hand placement for receiving a handoff. At one practice last week he lay flat on his back in front of his centers to make sure they understood how to snap properly.

“When I first saw that, I was kind of like, ‘Why is he on the ground doing this?’” running back De’Veon Smith said. “All the centers said that was the first time it was a hands-on experience when a coach got on the ground and showed them how to snap the ball. They said it helped them out. I enjoyed it.”

The extra time on the field allows the coaching staff to shift gears through the practice. They go from rushing through drills in an effort to accumulate as many reps as possible to meticulously explaining the details of certain plays or movements.

The time Michigan spends on the field bites into what it can do in classrooms in front of whiteboards and open playbooks. Harbaugh said his team is doing that learning on the field instead.

“One way we found the balance there is part of that time is meeting on the field,” he said. “It’s class on the grass.”

Harbaugh wouldn’t say if holding class in cleats and helmets and between windsprints is designed to test his team’s toughness or endurance, but his players think it’s having that result. Redshirt senior Blake Countess said he was skeptical at first, but he’s come around on the long days a third of the way through Michigan’s spring season.

“We have those Gatorade breaks and coach Harbaugh will bring us up and say, ‘All right, we’re at the three-hour mark; you guys have to push through,’” Countess said. “Immediately, any time someone brings it to your attention, you’re like, ‘All right, gotta bring it.”