- Dan Murphy, ESPN Staff Writer
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The special-teams roll call is what former Stanford players say they remember most vividly about D.J. Durkin.
Durkin, who reunites with Jim Harbaugh as Michigan’s new defensive coordinator this month, was not yet 30 years old when Harbaugh hired him to run special teams and coach the defensive ends at Stanford in 2007. Those two units would eventually become pillars of strength in the Cardinal’s overhaul from a 1-11 team to 12-1 Orange Bowl champs. The results, players say, were a testament to Durkin’s incredible attention to detail and a passion for football that was matched only by their head coach.
Roll call brought those two elements together. The last meeting before Stanford loaded the bus for each game during that time was the special-teams review. The entire team was present. After shouting his way through motivational speeches that often referenced ancient war generals and current day military special forces units, Durkin ended the meetings by calling out each position on the special-teams units. The player slotted for that spot was expected to quickly yell back with his name. It was an exercise in focus and detail, but also a ritual crescendo that left most of the team frothing at the mouth when it was time to leave.
“When that meeting is over and we’re all walking out there, that’s the point before the game that I was most amped up,” said Bo McNally, a two-time captain who contributed regularly on special teams while starting at safety for the Cardinal.
McNally, who coached briefly after his career ended in 2009, has worked closely with several of the coaches Harbaugh has asked to join him at Michigan. He said the common thread among them is their passion for winning.
Michigan, as of Thursday morning, has yet to formally announce any member of Harbaugh’s coaching staff. The university goes through a thorough vetting process for all new hires before making them official. A few coaches, including Durkin and expected offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, are already working to fill out this year’s crop of recruits.
Harbaugh hasn’t veered far from the familiar during the first week of assembling a staff at Michigan. Durkin and Drevno both worked for Harbaugh at Stanford. Drevno followed him to the 49ers before returning to the college game as a USC line coach in 2014. He played a big role in helping to instill the tough, physical identity that still persists at Stanford.
Drevno, McNally says, was perhaps the most impersonated coach in Stanford’s locker room. Just as loud as Harbaugh and Durkin, he kept his message to players as simple as possible. He would yell, “physical, physical, physical” hundreds of times during the course of most two-hour practices.
“Drevno was an easy target because he has two or three phrases that he said all the time,” McNally said. “I’m sure it was very deliberate. 'Physical' was the word he repeated probably 7,000 times a day.”
Durkin left Stanford in 2010 to join Urban Meyer at Florida. Meyer was his first boss when he started as a graduate assistant at Bowling Green in 2001. Durkin stayed with the Gators through this year’s bowl game, when he served as interim head coach.
Both of Michigan’s expected coordinators are relatively young (Drevno is 45; Durkin is 36) and both are on a path to be head coaches in the future.
“If you were to say, ‘Hey Bo, 10 years from now you need to pick out a young coach who’s going to be the next national championship caliber head coach,” McNally said. “D.J. Durkin is the one name that I would tell you.”
Those close to Harbaugh say he seeks out assistants who aspire to eventually run their own team. Tyrone Wheatley, who reportedly interviewed for a job at Michigan this week, fits into that category as well. The former Big Ten rushing leader and NFL veteran began his coaching career as the head coach of the high school program where he once set Michigan state records. He has since coached for Ohio Northern, Eastern Michigan, Syracuse and most recently for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL.
McNally met Wheatley at Syracuse when he was a graduate assistant and Wheatley coached running backs. Wheatley is noticeably calmer than the men he could join on Michigan's staff, but McNally said he has a knack for relating well to players.
On Jan. 15, the new Michigan staff will get its first chance to hit the road in search of prospects. By then, Harbaugh will likely have selected most of his assistant coaches and support staff.