Josh Gattis breaks down Michigan's offense, how Wolverines can improve 'culture'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan football’s spring practice wraps up Saturday at Michigan Stadium, and while strides have been made on offense, there’s plenty of improvement left to be made coming off a 2-4 season.

Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, in a wide-ranging interview on the “In the Trenches” podcast with Jon Jansen on Thursday not only broke down the position groups but also touched on where the team overall has to make changes because “culture hasn’t been what we’ve wanted it to be."

Josh Gattis is entering his third season as Michigan's offensive coordinator.

The Wolverines will have a new starter at quarterback this fall and this spring has been about Cade McNamara, freshman J.J. McCarthy and Dan Villari, a freshman last year. Alan Bowman, a graduate transfer from Texas Tech, will be joining the team and has three years of eligibility. Joe Milton, who started five games for Michigan last fall, has transferred, as has Dylan McCaffrey, who opted out before last season.

“For us, it’s about trying to create as many game-like scenarios to put the quarterbacks in, real contested scenarios because that’s the hardest thing about a quarterback,” Gattis said on the podcast, describing what the spring has been like for this position group. “You never really know about a quarterback until you put them in game scenarios.”

McNamara is the only returner of that group with game experience. He played in four games, coming into to lead a comeback at Rutgers and earned the start the next week against Penn State, the Wolverines’ final game before a COVID-19 outbreak forced the cancelation of their final three games. He was 43-of-71 for 425 yards and five touchdowns. McNamara did not have an interception.

“Cade’s experience, the players believe in him, his leadership,” Gattis said. “He has a tremendous understanding of the offense. He’s a leader. He moves the ball for the team, he moves the ball for offense and he takes control and command. But he’s still only played in (a few) games. He hasn’t played a ton of football. He gives you the feeling of a returning starter, but he hasn’t played a ton of football, so there’s still a lot left to be desired as far as game scenarios that he needs to face.”

McCarthy arrived in Ann Arbor as a five-star recruit and enrolled early to participate this spring.

“He’s done a really good job learning the offense, grasping everything,” Gattis said. “He’s had his freshman moments, but he’s also had some big-time moments that displayed his five-star ability. He’s a kid with tremendous talent, but it’s about catching him up, getting him caught up. Every day is a new day when you’re a freshman because you don’t have the banked reps and the repeated opportunities to be able to grasp from other practice scenarios and obviously, with more of the defensive install, the picture changes as well.

“And having Dan Villari, this spring has been new for him because what people don’t understand, when you’re a freshman and you’re the scout-team quarterback, you’re not going through your offense, you’re going through the opposing team’s offense. We really have two freshmen with Dan Villari and J.J. McCarthy that are battling it out with Cade. The biggest thing is making sure we’re not putting too much on their plate and making sure we’re allowing those guys to be confident but also trying to put them in as many game-like scenarios where they have to make quick decisions and most important, protect the football and move the ball.”

Here are highlights from Gattis’ conversation with Jansen on the “In the Trenches” podcast.

On Mike Hart hired to coach running backs: “Mike Hart has been a tremendous asset for us. He’s a guy, he’s gonna be a head coach one day. You see his demeanor, his leadership, his no-kind-of-joke approach, especially with his players. He holds them accountable and really providing kind of another alpha male presence on the offensive side of the ball. Mike will speak his mind. He will address his guys in the right way and get the best out of them. That’s what we need for these guys. Obviously, with Jay Harbaugh going to tight ends and Matt Weiss coming in at quarterback, we’re excited about our offensive staff.”

On how he’s mastering his craft in Year 3 as coordinator: “It starts with the staff, teaching the staff.

"Being on the same page, talking about fundamentals. Our mistakes haven’t come in Xs and Os, they’ve come in execution and that’s a big part of the game and just having that consistency. That’s one of the things we want to improve for our players is every time we have a good play, we should be able to repeat that with another good play of the same type. You shouldn’t run the same play twice and have one play be successful and one play unsuccessful and it come down to the details. The more consistent we can be with executing those details at a high level on every play, the better we’ll be .”

On the receivers, which he coaches: “We finally have the speed needed, and now I feel better we’ve come along with the detail. We’ve got guys right now that are playing at a high level from a detail standpoint. Cornelius Johnson and Mike Sainristil right now, those two guys stand out when you walk out to the field, seeing the level of consistency they’re playing with. The plays they’re making are plays they’re making because of the detail, not because of how athletic or how fast they are. They’re applying the whole tool box to allow those guys to be open.

"And, having a veteran leader like Ronnie Bell, but then also having the depth that we have at receiver with A.J. Henning, Roman Wilson and then you also add our two true freshmen Andrel Anthony and Cristian Dixon, and hopefully this summer we’ll end up getting in Xavier Worthy, so we’ve got speed. We’ve got a very fast room. They’re athletic, they can run, they can move with the ball in their hands, but now it’s about adding the details of route savviness to be able to create the separation to be open.”

On the running backs: “This running back room has a lot of different pieces that complement each other. When you look at Hassan Haskins, his physicality. ... , Hassan’s physicality, his balanced body control, he’s one of the hardest backs I’ve been around to tackle. He’s so strong at the point of attack, but he’s shown that in games.

"You have a guy like Blake Corum, who I think is a combination of everything, strength, speed and power, but now we’ve been able to see the growth of Blake from Year 1 to Year 2. One of Blakes’s biggest challenges last year, he relied so heavily on speed, so oftentimes he didn’t have patience going to the hole and now he understands what it’s like to be a high-level collegiate running back, and the plays he’s been making in practice — we all know once he’s gets to the second level, he’s gone. There’s no one that can run with him or catch him. He’s been able to have a better feel for vision and patience and it’s really paid off for him, and he also has elite ball skills out of the backfield.

"And then adding (early enrollee freshman) Donovan Edwards, as I’ve said before, there’s certain guys you say, ‘Well, that guy’s a quote unquote five star.’ Well, it’s pretty obvious when you look at players they’re going to be labeled a five star, you want them to look like something, and Donovan’s met those expectations. He’s flashed each and every day on the field, not only with his ability to run the ball but his ability to catch the ball. He had a big play yesterday in practice where he ran up the sideline for 50 yards. He’s special. It’s going to continue to take time for him to grasp the whole offense so he can continue to have that discipline on every play and consistency on every play, but he’s going to have a very, very bright future at Michigan. Those three guys are what the running back room is supposed to look like at Michigan."

On dividing carries and building an offensive rhythm: “Rhythm is very important, game flow is very important, and the No. 1 key thing to game flow is not letting the games get out of hand, staying on track, staying ahead of schedule. And that was our biggest challenge last year. It wasn’t necessarily running the football. It was our ability to maintain the game we wanted to have throughout the game. You can't fall behind the sticks and end up in third and longs or fall behind on the scoreboard, down by 14 or 17 early in games because it changes the way the game goes. When you have a room full of backs and you want to be committed to letting those guys having good game flow and touches, you’ve got to stay committed, but the biggest thing in staying committed is keeping the game within reach that it allows you to call it the way the way you need to call it. It’s definitely important that we get those guys in a rhythm early on and find as many ways that those guys can touch the ball.

On what he wants to see the players do in the offseason after spring practice: “I would love to see our leaders just take over the team. Let the alpha males emerge. Let’s have great leadership, have great belief and not just great leadership when things are good, but a willingness to be able to face adversity head on. I think that’s an area in a program as far as culture that we have to continue to emphasize. Our culture hasn’t been what we’ve wanted it to be, and so you’ve seen our players taking over this spring with the energy they’ve created in practice. You’ve seen the excitement that comes from competitive nature, and that’s got to be driven by the players, because at the end of the day those are the guys that are playing within the lines that put the game on the line for us. Just continue to take the step forward as team, not just one side of the ball, but for us to all grow together as a team to have true belief in each other, to have true trust in each other and all be committed to one purpose. ... When we ultimately put the team first, individual recognition will come with team success. For every guy who wants to achieve a certain goal individually, if they just put the team first, it will come. That’s our biggest challenge going into the offseason is continuing to grow together as team and continue to have that belief and develop a culture that we want to have as a team and be known for.”

Twitter: @chengelis