Michigan football: There is no denying Jim Harbaugh develops NFL talent. Just ask Sean McKeon.
Since 2016, the year after Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach, the Michigan Wolverines have had 31 players selected in the NFL Draft.
A handful or so of other Michigan men have made the league as undrafted free agents.
Despite Harbaugh’s inability to win the big games – rivalries vs. Ohio State and Michigan State, ranked opponents on the road and bowl games – there is no denying that he’s always had a staff capable of pushing players through Ann Arbor and into Sunday football.
Sean McKeon, a 2020 UDFA who signed with the Dallas Cowboys, is a shining example of the Harbaugh staff’s NFL-touch. Entering college as a relatively unheralded 3-star recruit, McKeon blossomed into one of the most consistent tight ends of the Harbaugh era, finishing with 40 games played and 23 starts during his four years of playing time.
People can say what they want about Michigan’s on-the-field product on Saturdays — and it hasn’t been particularly pretty in 2020 — but there is no questioning the fact that UM preps players for the next level.
And there is no questioning that Harbaugh and his staff — which has included top-notch coordinators and analysts/special assistants — are major reasons why so many Wolverines have recently found themselves on NFL rosters. In 2017, UM had a program-high 11 players selected in the NFL Draft. In 2020, 10 Wolverines found themselves signing pro contracts.
Harbaugh’s Michigan has seen no fewer than 2 players selected each season since 2016.
It might not win the critical games — at least not yet — but Harbaugh’s Michigan teaches NFL techniques and mindsets.
“Well, you know, especially on the offensive side, we’ve always used pro mechanics in our offense – whether it was (former OC/QB coach) Pep Hamilton and (former OL coach) Tim Drevno offenses, which is more, you know, under-center and pro-style,” said McKeon, a 6-5, 238-pounder out of Massachusetts. “Kind of a lot of ‘12’ and ‘21’ personnel. Being in that system where you have ‘kills’ to different plays at the line, that’s a lot of what we do in the NFL …
Being around the mentality, language, concepts and formations found in the NFL boosted McKeon from a borderline starter in college to a professional today.
“Just being able to hear that in the huddle and kind of digest a huddle-call – it’s not easy at times, some of them get pretty long – so I think just experiencing that at Michigan (helped the transition),”McKeon said. “Now they have a spread offense, but they still use a lot of pro concepts and schemes in the spread offense. I think the coaching staff at Michigan – on the offensive side of the ball – they’ve done a great job, and I think they really prepared me well to play tight end in the NFL … . It was definitely a great experience for me there.”
In 2019, McKeon caught his first TD as a senior (6 career TDs) during a 35-14 loss to Wisconsin. It was a 6-yard dump from QB Shea Patterson that McKeon turned into Michigan’s first points of the night.
He broke two tackles in the process.
McKeon recalls TE Coach Sherrone Moore saying “Now that’s an NFL play,” as he made his way back to the sideline. The fine details, the little things — all of that was emphasized by Wolverines coaches across the board.
“They helped me perfect my technique and play really well on Saturdays,” McKeon said, referencing his transition to Sundays. “I think Sherrone definitely helped a lot with my game overall, and I’m really thankful for him — definitely.”
Michigan’s offense hasn’t been too powerful this season. There have been mistakes made by every position group, so there isn’t just one area that can be identified as the most concerning problem. The defense hasn’t been up to par, either — ranking No. 13 in the Big Ten, just one spot above basement-dweller Rutgers.
Harbaugh has been blown out by Ohio State for two consecutive years. He’s 3-3 vs. Michigan State and lost as a heavy favorite this season. Rolled by Indiana and Wisconsin, the Wolverines needed triple-overtime to get rid of Rutgers this past Saturday in Piscataway, New Jersey.
“Fire Harbaugh!” has been heard loud and clear for the past two seasons. Fans, media and anyone else with an opinion has voiced strong displeasure with the 6th-year UM head coach.
As a player, that can be nerve-racking. McKeon knows about Harbaugh and his staff’s long hours of effort, all the time taken to stress fundamentals and details, and the meticulous preparation. In 2019, the talk was there … but it’s come to a head this fall.
McKeon can only imagine what it’s like for this year’s roster to witness the constant bombardment.
“It’s definitely not something you like, as a player. You know, that’s your coach, that’s your guy – you’ve been with him for a long time. He recruited you in,” McKeon said. “There’s definitely a lot of loyalty to your coach and you don’t want to see him leave. I think the players really want to play for Harbaugh and they don’t want him to go. Hopefully he can get them turned around and kind of put some of the fan chatter to rest.”
Despite all of the outside noise, Harbaugh — who’s been under the microscope since his arrival in 2015 — never let opinions and criticism interfere with the way he coached his team. He never, at least in McKeon’s experience, appeared to crack or falter.
“No, I don’t think so. I think that he’s a great leader and he always inspired us and led us in a way that we wouldn’t have known the difference,” McKeon said. “He definitely doesn’t let that affect him. I think it just makes him want to work harder to get better.”