Wolverines watch Crimson Tide replays to glean finer points of Gattis' offensive scheme

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
“We are able to look at the sideline, and listen to Shea, and we know what we’re doing immediately,” says Michigan offensive lineman Jon Runyan.

Ann Arbor — To help understand the direction new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis is taking the Michigan offense, many of the players, and even some of the coaches, went back and watched Alabama’s games from last season.

Gattis was co-offensive coordinator for the Crimson Tide, and that has helped shape the “speed in space” concepts he has brought to Schembechler Hall. Michigan’s offensive linemen are enjoying the transition from a huddle to no-huddle offense, something their position coach, Ed Warinner, finds completely familiar since last season at Michigan was his first in nearly 15 years operating from a huddle. And many of the players were part of similar offenses in high school, so the transition, while it has had the occasional hiccup, has been relatively smooth.

Michigan will hold its second open practice of spring ball on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. It’s called a “game” but will consist mostly of drills and some situational work. Bottom line, you won’t see much of what the offensive players are learning, and that’s probably by design. The Wolverines will still have practices next week behind the curtain where the real work is done, but left tackle Jon Runyan, Tuesday before practice, offered a peek into what the offense has so far accomplished and what’s to come.

In this no-huddle system, which could add about 20 plays a game for the offense, the players look to the sideline for the play call and quarterback Shea Patterson and center Cesar Ruiz are key to setting the play — not really a departure from before — and putting the play in motion.

“We are able to look at the sideline, and listen to Shea, and we know what we’re doing immediately,” Runyan said. “There’s not too much thinking involved in it. It hasn’t been too much of a transition. As an offensive line, we’ve been getting it pretty well. On the offensive line, as long as one person knows the signal that Shea is telling (us), we’re pretty well set off. Cesar is doing a phenomenal job communicating with us up and down (the line).

“It hasn’t been too bad a transition and looking forward to seeing the product actually on the field.”

This is by no means a finished product because it is new but also because several skill players have been out this spring, including receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins and running backs Christian Turner and early enrollee freshman Zach Charbonnet. Runyan said there have been some outstanding performances from younger players in the absence of several key players, and he quickly singled out freshman receiver Mike Sainristil.

But to have a better sense of the product Michigan will present his fall will take all of preseason camp to determine. Until then, Runyan, for one, decided to scout Alabama to get a feel for Gattis.

“Before we even started spring practice when coach Gattis got here, I went through almost all of (Alabama’s) games,” Runyan said. “I was trying to picture that with us, and I didn’t really know how it would translate, because I’d see Alabama run an RPO and the receiver catch the ball in the slant, take it like 60 yards to score a touchdown, and I really didn’t know if we would have the capabilities of doing that. But going through these practices, I think it’s definitely possible.

“It’s really awesome. From offensive line perspective, you could take a pass 60 yards down the field and get me off the field as fast as possible, I love that every single time. There’s a lot of decision-making on the quarterback’s part that’s going to have to happen quick. There’s some plays we don’t know if the ball is going to be handed off or thrown, so it kinda throws off our fits sometimes like in run and pass fits. We’re all going with it. It’s all new to us, but we’re working through it, and I’m excited for it, definitely.”

He said Patterson has a very good feel for the offense, having run something similar his first two seasons in 10 starts at Ole Miss. The Wolverines’ defense isn’t playing nice in practices and is trying to be as disruptive as possible.

With Peoples-Jones out with a groin injury and Collins recovering from an unspecified medical procedure — he has been running a bit recently — Sainristil has distinguished himself.

“Young Mikey — he’s got a lot of speed,” Runyan said. “That’s what I saw, naked eye, when I turned on Alabama’s film. Those key (receivers) are out, I know they have that (type of skill). Donovan has it definitely. I’m really excited to see Mikey run around out there. He’s made a few big plays for us. There’s been a couple times where me and (left guard) Ben (Bredeson) came up to him, ‘Mike, we need a long catch out of you so we can get out of this period,’ and he’s shown up for us and we went over to him and thanked him for it. That’s awesome, that’s what we need.”

Michigan led the Big Ten in time of possession (34:10) last season in large part because of how long the Wolverines took to get into a play.

“Especially with a no-huddle offense, we’re not going to be wasting time, so we’re going to get the ball even more than we had last year,” Runyan said. “We were top in the Big Ten in time of possession, but that’s because we were huddling so long. It would make me nervous because we’d get to the line and we’d have seven seconds to snap the ball, so I think that had something to do with it. With the no huddle, you either go three and out or you’re going to get the ball, I don’t know how many times we’re going to get the ball, and more times you get the ball, more points you’re going to score. That’s why teams that are playing in the Final Four games last year, they averaged around 40 points a game and we were averaging 30ish (35.2). So, the more times you get the ball, the more opportunities you have to score. That’s something that we are really talking in the offense line room that we have to improve.”

Tight ends coach Sherrone Moore said Tuesday that change is always good and this offense fits the type of players Michigan has.

“The things we’re going to do are really going to help us, and whatever you can do to help your players and put them in the best position is always going to be the best thing for us,” he said.

Moore has known Gattis for several years when the recruited against each other. Moore was at Louisville, and Gattis at Vanderbilt, and they’ve stayed in touch since then. Like Runyan, Moore tackled watching Alabama’s season to get a feel for what’s to come in Ann Arbor. Gattis, who was a receivers coach as he came up the ranks and will work with receivers here, targets the receivers but also the tight ends, a lot. The Michigan tight ends said Gattis refers to them as “big speed in space.”

“I know his background and what he does,” Moore said. “I went back, and I was already going to do a study on them anyway, so I went back and watched the whole season, too, so I was pretty impressed with some of the stuff that they did with all the sets that they had there.”

Warinner, who coaches the offensive line, said the Michigan assistants have worked in no-huddle offenses, so they’ve been able to adjust quickly to what Gattis is preaching.

“I think we’re in good shape,” Warinner said. “The staff’s working well together. It’s been a good deal. It’s going in the right direction. I’m real pleased with that.”

He described what Runyan had indicated in terms of how much quicker Michigan will run a play. The linemen are enjoying this process.

“Not trying to snap the ball with three seconds to go every play,” Warinner said recently. “When you huddle, you run up to the line and you get all set, (now) you’re trying to give yourself a little more time to run these plays.

 “I think the linemen have liked it. I think they enjoy it. We’ve got all kinds of signals going on (on the sideline).  What they have now, they have the play faster than before. In the huddle, they got it, ran up to the line and that’s all they had. Now they have it and now they’re actually waiting for the skill guys to figure out and get lined up and do all their business so they have a lot longer at the line of scrimmage to know and think about what they’re doing, which is actually another advantage I try to sell them on — saved you 14 yards (running back and forth from the huddle), and you get the play faster so you can think about it more.”


Twitter: @chengelis