The Michigan Wolverines offense ushered in a new era last season by hiring Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator. The offense evolved into a faster paced and shotgun heavy scheme, but it takes more than one season to see every nuance of a new system.
There were glimpses of what a running back could contribute as a pass-catcher in Gattis’ scheme, although the 2019 rendition of those play-calls featured a receiver lined up as a running back more often than not. “Throwing to the running back is a very important piece in our offense. We did that quite a bit. Numbers may not reflect that out of the running back position because of all the different pieces that we do within our offense. So a lot of pieces move around. But you constantly saw the number of receivers that we had lined up in the backfield. You know, whether it’s Giles, whether it’s Mikey, Ronnie Bell lined up in the backfield last year,” Gattis said this week. “All those positions are labeled as the R, so we just use our best personnel that was suited in those situations.”
Michigan had power backs in ‘19, Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet, who are still working on their receiving prowess, but UM was without the elusive and speedy Chris Evans. Evans, a player who had 34 receptions for 355 yards and 2 touchdowns in ‘17 and ‘18, has been reinstated to the team and will be a major contributor in 2020. “When you do have a guy like Chris Evans that can do that, then it also helps you because now you’re not having to use a specific player to line him up in the backfield and throw to the running back, you’re actually using a running back,” Gattis said. “Last year we leaned on the strengths of the guys that we had on our roster. I think that’s what Chris Evans is going to be able to bring to the table, give us a strength there that we’re going to be able to use because that is a big piece of the offense.”
Gattis has been part of offenses that utilize running backs extensively in the passing game. As co-offensive coordinator at Alabama in ‘18, backs had 46 receptions for 458 yards and 3 TDs, and as passing game coordinator/receivers coach at Penn State in ‘17 Saquon Barkley had 54 receptions for 632 yards and 3 TDs. “Every place I’ve been, the running backs have all been successful. Not only as runners but also catching the football,” Gattis said. “You just look at the last few backs and they’ve all been successful in going on to make it to the NFL but been around pretty good darn backs and excited to continue to use our guys in that same way that’s been around the way we use some of the backs in the past.”
Michigan running backs combined for just 20 receptions and 97 yards in 2019 with Zach Charbonnet’s 8 receptions leading the way. That number should go way up with Evans back, and 5-foot-9 true freshman Blake Corum now on the team, who’s been described as having “explosive feet”, “great hands”, and “great vision”.
The more weapons a position group has in their arsenal the better, and Michigan will be aiming to utilize them all at running back in 2020. Power and speed. Finesse and physicality. Anything an offense can do to keep a defense guessing is optimal, and having halfbacks that are reliable contributors in the passing game could be a game-changer.