The Michigan Wolverines open fall camp on Friday with no shortage of questions as we inch closer to the start of the 2021 season. We somehow narrowed them down to five. The third in the series looking a little bit deeper at some tweaks on the offensive side of the ball.
Jim Harbaugh retained offensive coordinator Josh Gattis for the 2021 season, giving them some continuity on that side of the ball. There had been a bit of a revolving door of play-callers with a lot of cooks in the kitchen before Gattis arriving. The “speed in space” offense — which has been described by the staff as a west passing coast offense with spread tendencies — has looked pretty darn good when it clicks, but it has been incredibly inconsistent. It usually goes as well as the quarterback play it's getting does.
Some think that “speed in space” was meant as Michigan playing basketball on grass. Gattis does emphasize creating explosive plays through the air and on the ground, but this was never going to be a Big 12-style of attack. Michigan wants to get the ball in the hands of its playmakers with green grass in front of them while the quarterback makes the appropriate reads and throws.
When Michigan’s quarterbacks have done that — like in the second half of the 2019 season or the 2020 opener — things have gone according to plan. Change one variable somewhere, whether it be a bad read, a missed block or wide receivers running routes too close to each other, it tends to fall apart.
One thing that the Gattis offense can be guilty of is being a little too complex and cute. A lot of their struggles early in 2019 felt like due to having the players drink from a firehose. Once the game slowed down for everyone, they started putting more drives together and finding a flow.
Some of the struggles from 2020 can be labeled as an outlier while some clearly are not. Potential All-Big Ten receivers like Nico Collins do not opt-out of seasons frequently, nor does the starting offensive line practice in split groups to prevent the chances of a COVID outbreak. Inconsistent quarterback play and questionable playcalling are things that can be controlled. Michigan must improve here.
Unlike the defense, which needed the massive overhaul it got this offseason, the offense has always felt “close.” Last year was bad, but not bad enough that everything had to be scrapped and thrown away. Harbaugh recognized this and decided to run it back with Gattis with a few tweaks to the staff. Ben McDaniels (quarterbacks coach) and Ed Warinner (offensive line) were not retained. Jay Harbaugh moved from running backs coach to tight ends and special teams. Former Michigan star Mike Hart replaces the younger Harbaugh. Sherrone Moore moved from tight ends coach to offensive line and also now carries the title of co-offensive coordinator.
Harbaugh originally planned to coach the quarterbacks himself, but some last-minute staff changes before spring football caused him to bring in Matt Weiss from the Baltimore Ravens. Weiss is now charged with leading a room full of passers that could determine the future of the program for better or worse.
Moore’s promotion to co-offensive coordinator remains interesting. Does it change the playcalling dynamic? Is he an “equal” with Gattis now? When Warinner was with the Wolverines, he also was the team’s run game coordinator. That gave him influence in play designs and game-planning. It seems like that’s where Moore’s bump in titles might put him. Hart deciding to make the jump back to his alma mater seems like it puts him in the running to be a part of the brain trust offensively, as well.
Contrary to popular belief, this has been Gattis’ offense since arriving. Some wrongly believe that Harbaugh is some sort of shadow offensive coordinator. Typically, he is accused of this when the Wolverines *gasp* try to run the football. He is the head coach, so he is always going to have a ton of influence, but they have given Gattis the reigns completely. Some would argue that might have been a lot for a first-time offensive coordinator.
We will be able to get more clarity when camp starts on how the dynamic inside the offensive meeting room changes with some of the changes made this offseason. To me, it reads as giving Gattis more resources to run and operate the offense and taking a little bit off of his plate. It always comes with the worry that there might be too many voices and too much collaboration, but those concerns are offset if everyone is on the same page.
There are some talent deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball that will cause them to struggle this year. The offense has no such excuses, as there is plenty of talent at each position group and what appears to be 2-3 college-ready passers at quarterback. It will be incumbent upon Harbaugh, Gattis and the offensive staff to put them in positions to succeed. It’s the key to the entire season.
Now, it is on this retooled staff to develop and deliver.