Ann Arbor — Jim McElwain likes to joke about the way he wound up at Michigan.
No longer the head coach at Florida when he was let go late last October, McElwain was available and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh made the call to hire the man he coached against in the season opener.
“Maybe probably got the wrong number and I answered,” McElwain said with a laugh Monday night after practice referring to their initial communication.
“I don’t really know how it came about. I got a phone call and I was obviously very excited to come and, if nothing else, just get an opportunity to kinda stand in the background and see how something’s operating. That’s what’s been really good. He extended the offer and I was really excited about that. My wife and I are really excited about being in Ann Arbor.”
McElwain said he has followed Harbaugh for a “long time” and the opportunity to learn from him was hard to pass up. During the offseason in 2016 when Harbaugh was being criticized by Southeastern Conference and ACC coaches among others for his ambitious satellite camp tour, McElwain was one who stood out from the pack and praised him.
He called Harbaugh’s plan “totally legal” and said “he’s pressing envelopes.”
And now McElwain is on his staff coaching receivers.
Certainly, it’s vastly different than his most recent job as Florida’s head coach. Being away from the game was hard, and he quickly found a way back in although this time as an assistant coach.
“You learn how much you miss it when you’re away from it,” McElwain said. “And I was away from it for a time and more than anything (I missed) the camaraderie from the staff and more than that being around the players and have an opportunity to their lives in a positive way.
“I’ve had great opportunities. The last opportunity was a great one. We made some wonderful friends and learned a lot. This is another opportunity for us to get a little bit better and there again, just be involved in helping some guys grow.”
McElwain made it clear that pass-game coordinator Pep Hamilton is directing things on offense.
“I came in to learn and learn what Pep’s teaching and help him in any way I can,” he said. “He’s kinda running it. We’re just here to help him.”
But that’s being modest. Of course McElwain is contributing.
“I hope I am,” McElwain said. “More than anything, just trying to understand kinda what and how, and then maybe over the years of doing this, maybe there’s a thing or two that maybe can help our guys play fast. But like I said, I’m not reinventing it. It’s an offense that’s here and I’m just trying to learn it.”
McElwain certainly had a preview of the group he took over when he coached Florida against Michigan in last year’s season opener in Texas. He already knew most of the Wolverines’ personnel in the receivers room.
“We knew the talent that was there,” he said. “Tarik (Black) got us on a big one. We knew a lot about Donovan (Peoples-Jones) going into it. Really like the way Tarik is attacking it as well. They’ve been very attentive and fun to work with.
“There’s a lot of talent there. Good young talent. The thing I really enjoy is being in that room with him. For us, one of the focus areas has been ability to, No. 1 get open, especially against all the press coverage that you see. They’ve worked on honing their skills and trying to do what we’re trying to teach them to do and yet we’ve got a long ways to go. But at the same time, it’s really a fun group of guys. It’s great to be around them.”
He cited the aggressive approach of the Michigan basketball team, which played in the national title game, when it came to going after rebounds this season. McElwain wants Michigan’s receivers to go after 50-50 balls with the same type of aggression.
“We’ve got to come up with those and give our offense an opportunity to change field position,” he said.
Michigan receivers have been working this spring on getting separation so they can work to get open. They begin every practice, McElwain said, with individual release drills against the secondary.
“Just trying to help our guys put some things in their toolbox to help them be successful,” he said. So far I’ve seen a lot of progress.”
McElwain was asked about the quarterbacks and the competition going on at that spot, but he shifted his answer quickly to the receivers. He wants the focus to be the receivers making the quarterbacks look good.
“Doesn’t have to be perfect,” he said “That’s kind of been the point of emphasis. That’s a position you have an opportunity to truly affect the game in a positive way. You have an opportunity to change field position drastically with your play. That’s what we’re hoping within the system that’s built to be able to do.”
His experience so far at Michigan has been positive, but when McElwain was asked jokingly how he is enjoying this fine spring weather, he had nothing to say.
“I’ll plead the Fifth on that one,” McElwain said, smiling.