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How the Michigan offense has evolved with Josh Gattis so far

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Michigan’s offense now has versatility and unpredictability.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The hiring of Josh Gattis as Michigan’s offensive coordinator in January 2019 brought excitement and intrigue. A new scheme, an up-and-coming young coach with a track record of developing top-tier wideouts and implementing schematic creativity and flexibility.

The hashtag

The same month of his hiring, Gattis used a hashtag on Twitter that caught on quickly. #SpeedInSpace. The hashtag has been used by Michigan fans, players, recruits, and Gattis ever since.

The hashtag explains how Michigan’s offense has evolved to this point, and the direction its heading in the days to come.

“Hashtag (speed in space) can mean a number of different things,” Gattis said in March 2019. “One, obviously, the speed in space is obviously about putting the defense in conflict. When we talk about speed in space, that’s not only about skill guys or getting our athletes out in space. That’s also getting our running backs out. Trying to create open holes and putting conflicts on defense from a run/pass conflict standpoint, being able to have the pin last. One of the things we talk about on offense is having to dictate the aggressiveness of the defense. We feel like, if we can stay aggressive on offense, we can limit how aggressive the defense is gonna be.”

No huddle attack

In Gattis’ first year, the team didn’t huddle up, the team ran out of various spread formations most of the time, and implemented new wrinkles that weren’t part of the Jim Harbaugh era pre-2019.

“We’re a no huddle team,” Gattis said. “When people ask who we are, from an offensive standpoint, we’re a pro-spread. That’s what I like to tell people. We run from a spread mechanics, we’re no huddle. We don’t huddle ever. But we still have a big pro-style emphasis, and one of the things with speed in space is, we’re still gonna have a mindset that we’re an attacking offense, but also, we’re a physical offense. We’re not just gonna go out there and dink and dunk the ball around, throwing bubble screens and all that. We’re aggressive. We’re gonna be sound, fundamentally sound, in our run game. We’re gonna be aggressive in taking our shots. We’re gonna be aggressive in trying to put conflict on the defense. For us, that’s the biggest focal point for us is that we’re still gonna dictate the style of play, but we’re gonna finish with an aggressive mentality.”

Gattis was true to his word about not dinking and dunking, with the team rarely relying on a screen-passing game. This fact is evident when looking at how Michigan ranked No. 16 in the nation in passing yards per completion (14.30). Gattis is happy anytime Michigan moves the ball forward, but there’s no doubt he likes hitting chunk plays when they can be had.

RPO’s and a preferred type of QB

There were times the running game powered the offense, Michigan’s smashmouth football approach to winning is still there, but there’s been an uptick in passing plays, and especially RPO’s (run-pass-option) under Gattis. Gattis is a firm believer that RPO’s open up the run-game, too.

Advantages of RPO’s according to Gattis:

  • The ability to even an offense’s numbers out
  • Simplicity for the offensive line- block the box
  • To run into favorable box counts/to throw into favorable looks
  • Take the aggressiveness out of the defense and force them to play disciplined football

A mobile quarterback isn’t require to have a RPO-heavy playbook, but it’s what both Harbaugh and Gattis would prefer. Dylan McCaffrey has incredible speed for a quarterback, Joe Milton can scoot too, Cade McNamara is a scrambler, incoming freshman Dan Villari surely is fast, and future Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy fits the mold of a mobile quarterback as well.

More speed at RB= more pass-catching production

Using running backs as threats in the passing game is something that’s about to happen a lot more with speedy Chris Evans being re-instated and freshman running back Blake Corum now on the scene. Evans had 34 receptions for 355 yards and 2 touchdowns in ‘17 and ‘18, and Corum’s been described as having “explosive feet”, “great hands”, and “great vision”.

“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. “All those positions are labeled as the R, so we just use our best personnel that was suited in those situations.”

Tons of speed at wideout, but it’s not all about #SpeedInSpace

Michigan has its fastest receiving corp in years. Giles Jackson is incredibly fast, Cornelius Johnson can fly at 6-foot-3, incoming freshmen A.J. Henning and Roman Wilson are absolute burners. The speed cannot be ignored by fans, the media, and it definitely can’t be ignored by opposing teams. Although there’s a speed (r)evolution, Gattis values ball-skills even more.

“I can’t lie, speed is a major piece of it,” Gattis said. “Six years ago in my career, I would have told you speed didn’t matter. Now I’ll tell you speed is the only thing that matters to run a go route and a post route. But ill tell you what, when you’re blessed to coach some guys with speed, and you realize they can do a little bit more with the ball in their hand than you can coach, then you put an emphasis on it. Speed is definitely something I value next after ball skills. It’s really ball skill, speed and then balance and body control. That I think are the three key elements to make elite receivers.”

Balance with unpredictability

Michigan’s offense has the type of playbook along with a diverse roster on offense to change their gameplan week to week in hopes of exposing the weaknesses of their opponent.

“I don’t believe in the cookie-cutter approach,” Gattis said. “You have to have balance and difference in your room, whether that is size, speed, you have to have the ability to offset what you are lacking in certain areas. Whether you have some big guys and need a little more quickness or a little more agility, you gotta build the room around your needs, specifically what fits your offense.”

Michigan’s not stuck into one type of philosophy or one type of offense. Playing time can fluctuate for certain wideouts and running backs week to week based on who the opponent is and how they can help UM win that Saturday.

“This offense, is what I call like a mutt of a dog you know, it’s the pretty dog walking down the road that you’re trying to figure out ‘what kind of dog is it?’,” Gattis said. “And for us we do a little bit of everything, so on offense there’s times where we can pick and choose what we do. I mean, that’s hard and challenging for defenses to prepare for us with the number of different things that we do. We pick and choose what we do and what we major in, in the emphasis whether or not who we’re playing each week to allow our kids to give them the correct gameplan to be successful.”

Conclusion

There was an enormous amount of excitement and hype heading into Gattis’ first year as offensive coordinator, but the reality is there are going to be growing pains for college players in the first year of a new offense. Heading into training camp last year, Michigan didn’t even have 75% of their offense installed. Now with a year-plus learning Gattis’ scheme and personality, players have a better understanding of the offense and are likely going to be more confident and execute at a higher clip out of the gate than a season ago.

We witnessed major glimpses into what Gattis’ offense is and can become. And now with an abundance of new personnel we’ll see if a new starting quarterback mixed in with more speed at the skill positions will lead to Michigan’s best season in years.