Josh Gattis ushers in big culture change for Michigan football

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor – The ice breaker was a hit with Michigan fans.

Hashtag speed in space. That was essentially how Josh Gattis introduced himself on Twitter -- #speedinspace -- to anyone who follows the Wolverines, and they embraced the concept immediately. The first-time offensive coordinator blew into Ann Arbor with a no-huddle spread – he calls it a pro-spread and insists it’s not a complete departure from the offense Jim Harbaugh has run the first four seasons – that takes advantage of, in particular, Michigan's quarterbacks and receivers.

It’s all about the playmakers and getting the ball in their hands and making big plays. Gattis’ offense will make its debut Saturday night in Michigan’s season opener against Middle Tennessee State.

Josh Gattis

Reviews from inside the UM program have been solid since spring practice and, more recently, in fall camp.

“He’s made a huge difference for us,” left guard Ben Bredeson said. “His offense is obviously a new look for us. He holds us to an incredibly high standard. He knows every single day you’re not going to get off easy if something’s not perfect. He makes us be perfect.”

The funny thing is, the architect of Michigan’s new offense was an All-ACC safety in 2005 and 2006 at Wake Forest. Although he was a defensive back in college, Gattis has been, mostly, a receivers coach, which has given him an interesting perspective on how to attack a defense.

He worked with receivers during the 2011 season at Western Michigan, then joined James Franklin at Vanderbilt, where he coached the group in 2012-13 and moved to Penn State when Franklin took over and was pass-game coordinator/receivers coach from 2014-17. He spent last season at Alabama as co-offensive coordinator who also coached receivers.

At Michigan he's working with a deep, athletic receiver group that includes Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins, Tarik Black, Ronnie Bell and freshman Mike Sainristil. Last season under Gattis, Alabama had five receivers with 40 or more catches, and five had 693 receiving yards or more. Jerry Jeudy led the team with 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Starts with the quarterbacks 

Harbaugh said last month the reason he decided to make the commitment to a new offense was the skill-sets of his quarterbacks, starting with Shea Patterson, who ran a similar offense at Ole Miss, and backups Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton, as well as early-enrollee freshman Cade McNamara. The offense stretches the field, and the quarterbacks are threats with their arms and legs.

“Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey, their explosive ability to throw and run,” Harbaugh said, explaining the shift in offense.  “And they're used to that. Shea was used to that. Found that Shea was really better in the shotgun after being with him for the first season. We went more to it as the season went on last year. Also, Dylan's ability to get out and go and run. There's a tremendous running ability there that he has.

Shea Patterson

“I think Shea’s really comfortable in that up-tempo, no-huddle offense, and things spread out just a little bit more helps, helps those two quarterbacks. It's driven by that for us and the opportunity to hire Josh Gattis, who I followed for a long time back from when he was coaching at Western Michigan, and then Penn State, Vanderbilt, Alabama. Opportunity presented itself to hire him and was decisive in doing that because I felt like he would be the person that could coach that system the best, knew that system the best, and it's been a great learning experience for me."

Harbaugh, in a recent ESPN interview, described what fans should expect.

“The offense will look different,” Harbaugh said. “The major ways it will look different are going to be shotgun, it will be no-huddle. Shea operates really well in the shotgun, and he can run. He can use his legs and he’s got the quick decision making that fits the RPO world.”

Michigan fans, even those who happen to be former Michigan football players, like the change. Charles Woodson, the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner, was in town recently and said the offense suits Patterson and the skill players, such as receivers Peoples-Jones, Collins and Black. He was especially effusive in his praise of Patterson, who wears the No. 2 that Woodson made so famous at Michigan.

“You’ve got to be able to get the ball into your playmaker’s hands,” Woodson said. “Those RPOs are tough. Even if you play for them, somebody’s going to be open, because if you’ve got a good quarterback that is very cool and calm under pressure, the longer he holds that ball, the longer he has you sucked in, the better it’s going to be for somebody to be open. If you’re a little bit late, and you’re backing up waiting on the pass, I just let the ball go and hand off and I’m going to get five, 10 yards.”

Because Patterson ran a similar offense while at Ole Miss his first two seasons, Woodson can see how easy the transition has been for the quarterback.

“It fits his skillset,” Woodson said. “To me, he’s a running quarterback. You’ve got to utilize that athleticism. You saw some of the things they did, the read plays that they played last year picked up a lot of chunk yards. Imagine adding the RPO aspect to it.

“Sometimes some players are better suited for certain offenses or defenses, and I think this suits him.”

It also suits the receivers, where Michigan is especially strong.

"They’re not out there enough,” Woodson said of the receivers last year. “They’re not out there making plays enough. Peoples-Jones is a (matchup) problem, but you’ve got to get him the ball. Nico is a big receiver. You’ve got to get him the ball. If we’re in the red zone, and I’m not taking a couple of shots in the red zone to the big guy and let him try to outjump the DBs, what am I doing? Got to utilize those guys and take some shots. If a team doesn’t respect you down field, they’re all going to stay up on the line of scrimmage and make you try to beat them.”

First-time play-caller

For Gattis, this is his first time as a solo offensive coordinator. He shared the job with current Maryland coach Mike Locksley last season at Alabama, but Locksley called the plays. Gattis has never called plays but said he was doing so during spring practice and camp and felt confident. But making those decisions during a game is completely different.

“When you talk about play-calling and playing games, your call sheet is won Monday through Friday,” Gattis said. “What you call on Saturday is about putting your kids in a position to be successful. There’s been coordinators that have been coordinators for 20 years that aren’t successful. It’s not because they’ve been coordinators for 20 years, it’s because they’re not putting their kids in a position to be successful."

Fox analyst Joel Klatt said last month at Big Ten media days that he doesn’t think play-calling will be an issue for Gattis.

“I don’t want to underestimate a guy like Josh. He’s been around some incredible coaches,” Klatt said. “He’s been around some offenses that have been highly effective and efficient, even with the ability to be potent, which is generally an oxymoron. When you’re analyzing football, generally what you see is teams are either really efficient or they’re really explosive, not both. And now in the modern day, what you’re seeing is a transformation into – you’re setting quarterback efficiency marks and being the most explosive offense in the country with Tua (Tagovailoa) and Kyler (Murray) breaking Baker Mayfield’s efficiency record in one year.

“Michigan’s biggest challenge offensively has not been the ability to move the football. It has been the ability to move the football when their running game is taken away from them. That’s Gattis' biggest area (to improve)."

Although Harbaugh has said he has given Gattis the keys to the offense, he recently left open the possibility for calling a play here and there.

“Josh is going to call the plays,” he said. “I’m sure there will be a time if I want to call a play, I’ll make the suggestion. So far I haven’t done that. I’m learning from Josh, and he’s doing a heck of a job.”

Patterson said recently that fans shouldn’t blink because the new offense is that fast. Although Patterson was exaggerating, Bredeson, from his vantage on the offensive line, said the speed of this offense is exhilarating and it's only gotten better throughout camp and this first game week.

“We’re going to get the playmakers the ball every single time,” Bredeson said. “If we can get these playmakers the ball enough out in the open where they can make a guy miss, we can turn these 7-yard plays into 70-yard plays and stretch them. I think the fans are going to notice a difference.

“It’s a blast. It’s one of those offenses where you get the defense on their heels and you hit that no-huddle and start getting that tempo up, you can really get a defensive line down. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Although Patterson, who threw for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, believes he can play in any offense, but he knows this one is tuned for him.

“I think the sky’s the limit for this offense,” Patterson said. “We can do so many different things out of so many different personnel looks. Speed in space is the big thing and controlling the tempo of the game.”

And now it’s time for the Josh Gattis Show.