Ann Arbor — It’s different, but, it’s not all that different.
At least that’s how Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh views the system being installed this spring by new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis.
Sure, a lot of it feels and looks familiar, but Gattis’ speed-in-space, up-tempo, no-huddle approach is definitely different.
Despite the new look, the run game is a priority, but it will be a priority in a new way. The running backs and Harbaugh are adjusting to Gattis’ offense with a depleted group. Christian Turner, expected to be a main focus this fall, has been out with injury, but could return before the end of spring practice that will wrap up next week after Saturday’s spring “game” at Michigan Stadium. Early enrollee freshman Zach Charbonnet had a pre-existing injury that required surgery, so he has been out this spring, and Hassan Haskins, who moved to running back, also has been limited because of an injury. The status of Chris Evans, suspended by the university earlier this year, is not yet known. Harbaugh expects the injured players to be healthy for the season.
When Michigan trots out the team Saturday for its spring “game,” which is a practice and some controlled scrimmage elements, it’s possible Turner may be on the field. But with such a thin position group, it’s absolutely impossible to make any determination how it might look in the fall.
“We’ve had a few guys out,” Harbaugh said, putting it lightly. “The good thing is we have a bunch of guys who are willing and capable and highly coachable.
"So the guys that were the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh guys, they’ve gotten a lot better they have shown competitiveness and willingness to put themselves in with the 1s and 2s and to do some pretty good stuff.”
Tru Wilson, who had 364 yards and a touchdown as Michigan’s No. 3 back last fall, is now running with the first team.
“He’s playing a lot faster,” Harbaugh said of Wilson. “He’s a guy who did a lot of work this offseason just cleaning up his nutrition, doing a lot of extra speed work and it’s really showed up in perimeter runs, being able to put his foot in the ground and get vertical.
"A lot of times a run last year that might have been a four- or six-yard run now he’s running through that arm tackle and it’s 10, 12, 15 so it’s been fun to watch. He’s had a few big plays this spring.”
Wilson, a former walk-on out of Warren De La Salle, said he has made improvements in large part because of the strength staff and dietitian Abigail O’Connor.
“It definitely come to life this spring,” Wilson said.
Also getting reps this spring has been redshirt freshman Ben VanSumeren.
“He’s doing well,” Harbaugh said. “He’s moved from linebacker to offense. Big transition. He’s handled it well. There’s growing pains understanding the level of detail certain plays.”
It is possible that if Turner isn’t ready to be on the field Saturday, he might be able to get in some practice before it concludes next week.
Haskins, who moved over from defense, has a meniscus issue and may need surgery, so this has been a very thin group, and it will be fall camp when the post-Karan Higdon run game world at Michigan is determined. Harbaugh knows summer workouts and preseason camp will determine how this shakes out.
Turner was receiving heaping praise by the end of the season, particularly during bowl practices, and Charbonnet is a highly regarded freshman. The 6-foot-1, 222-pound back rushed for 4,741 yards during his high school career at Oaks Christian in California and had 62 touchdowns. His new teammates have remarked this spring how involved Charbonnet has been in meetings and asking questions and taking it all in.
“We’re not gonna end spring knowing who’s going to be our top guy for sure until the first game,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll have an idea that this is where it stands, but there’s a lot more work to be done throughout summer and those guys know that they’re building a body of work. So it’s a marathon, and the sprint of spring is important, but you’ve got to be able to sustain. That’s the good thing for those guys that are out. They know, ‘OK, I can get back and I can get back in the fight.’ I feel good about all of them.”
Although the running-backs group has been depleted this spring, the install of Gattis’ offense has not been delayed.
Those who haven’t been practicing must still learn the concepts, obviously, and those who have practiced have a small headstart on what’s to come.
So what is to come? Jay Harbaugh cautions that while the offense is evolving from the pro-style that distinguished Jim Harbaugh’s first four seasons as head coach, the importance of establishing the run game has not diminished.
“We’re still a run-first team and the runs that we’re running aren’t that much different,” Jay Harbaugh said. “The way it’s presented to them is, just from a learning standpoint, they’ve taken to it pretty well. When you talk about the transition of a guy like Ben VanSumeren from defense to offense or a guy who maybe was a fourth or fifth or sixth guy elevating up, those guys were able to learn really quickly, faster probably than in the last system. That’s one difference I’ve seen that’s benefitted them.
"Other things, there’s more involvement with screens and we’ve made more of an emphasis on that and guys are taking to it and understanding the detail. Overall, it’s been great, but it’s tough to say, ‘Hey this one thing is super different.’”
What Gattis’ is installing and teaching players and coaches has been easily embraced by the assistants who all have worked in a spread offense in some form. It’s not entirely foreign, so the coach-to-coach learning process has been smooth, which has made teaching the players that much easier.
“We all know the basics of his system because there’s pieces we’ve done before,” Harbaugh said. “Hearing from (Gattis), a guy who knows this is this play and this is all the things the defense can do to stop the play, he’s seen all those, and so he knows what the answers are and the direction an offense needs to go to say, ‘Hey, OK, if they’re defending us like this, the next move is this and this what we should do next.’ It’s been really cool to see that.
"We’re learning his thought process, the way he sees the game, the way he wants to attack the defense. He’s been incredible to work with.”