Ann Arbor — New Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said about 90 percent of the offense was installed during spring practices, leaving another 10 percent of wiggle room for new wrinkles to add. But does anyone really know specifically what the Wolverines will look like offensively this fall?
There have been plenty of hints beyond the fact that this will be a hurry-up, no huddle offense, and some evidence gathered during two open practices, including the spring “game” that featured several scrimmage situations. But with some key players missing, including receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins and running backs Christian Turner and incoming freshman Zach Charbonnet and the more than likely strategic move to not put too much on display, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect.
Gattis, the 35-year-old in his first role as offensive coordinator — he was a co-coordinator last season at Alabama — has spent the spring teaching his “speed in space” offense to the staff and the players. After about four, five practices, he said everyone had a handle on what he wants to do. What that is, is a myriad of looks to keep defenses on their collective toes.
“The offense is what I call like a mutt of a dog,” Gattis said Friday. “It’s the pretty dog walking down the road that you’re trying to figure out what kind of dog is it. For us, we do a little bit of everything. There’s times where we can pick and choose what we do. That’s hard and challenging for defenses to be able to prepare for us with the number of different things that we can do. We pick and choose what we do and what we major in, and the emphasis of who we’re playing each week to allow our kids, to give them the correct game plan.”
Returning starting quarterback Shea Patterson worked in a similar offense while starting 10 games at Ole Miss, but this isn’t a mirror-image offense, so he had to learn, too. Everyone had to start from scratch, even though many played something like this in high school, and Gattis said fairly early on, the players stopped thinking and were executing.
“Now, our challenge is to continue this momentum throughout the summer,” he said. “That way we don’t take a step back when we come back in the fall. We continue taking step forwards to take this offense where we want to take it.”
Gattis said the offense has a “library of plays” that can be used in a “plug-and-play” approach. They’re all in his head, and when he calls plays for the first time in his career, he said he won’t be consulting a script. He had an opportunity to call plays during scrimmages in practice, and he said the players learned to think as he does and could anticipate.
“I feel very good about where we are from a foundation standpoint,” Gattis said.
Patterson leads a talented quarterback room that includes backup Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton. All three have the arms and mobility to handle the versatility of this offense.
“They make it so easy,” Gattis said. “Just their skill set. I think when you look at all the quarterbacks, just the versatility they have, not only as throwers, runners, they’re very smart, they’ve got quick releases. They can make any throw on the field. They can get the ball out of their hands.
“We were very creative this spring with the number of things we asked those guys to do. Whether it’s putting the defense in conflict by run-pass options, whether it’s putting them in conflict by quarterback runs. We were able to get a lot of good stuff done this spring with the development of our quarterbacks, and it’s been pretty exciting, just the inventory of plays that we have and things we’ll be able to fall back on once the season comes around.”
Patterson quickly understood what Gattis hopes to achieve with the offense.
“I think Shea — he’s a really smart quarterback,” Gattis said. “He started understanding and grasping the offense. There were a few times this spring where he got us out of some negative plays by his overall understanding of what the weakness of certain plays would be. When the defense would blitz one way, he checked us out of some other plays. And really did an unbelievable job of commanding the offense.
“But when you look at his skill set individually, he’s got a quick release, something that’s very effective and efficient in the RPO (run-pass-option) game. He’s got a soft ball that he can place ball anywhere on the field. To me, he’s a complete guy. He can also create plays with his feet, as he often did last year. So I’m really excited about Shea and his development. He’s comfortable in this offense, as he’s stated. And also he’s very passionate.”
That is a quality Gattis and Patterson share.
“Shea has a lot of me inside of him,” he said. “We’re two passionate people. He often shows it in plays. If he overthrows a guy, he’s got a certain demeanor about him after it. He makes a big play, he’s jumping. And that’s what I like. It’s driven inside of him. He’s got that passion, that energy inside of him to be great. And when you have that leadership quality, you make other people better around you, and he does.”
Gattis wants this offense to dictate the tempo of the game. Defensive linemen after the spring “game” last week joked that they were more exhausted than they used to be because of the challenging up-tempo nature of the offense. Michigan last season was among the nation’s top-rated teams in terms of time of possession. That’s not high on Gattis’ priority list.
“To me on offense, when we talk about dictating the tempo of the game, it’s about applying pressure on opposing defenses,” he said. “They must stop us every time we have to go out there and score. And it’s also putting pressure on the opposing offense. If they don’t go out and score every time, they’re gonna fall behind the chains. From an aggressive standpoint on offense, we want to put the other team defensively and offensively, in conflict. That when they face us, and when they face this brand of Michigan football on offense, every possession matters to them. And obviously, coach (Don) Brown is gonna lead our defense. And one of the advantages of being an offensive coordinator here is you’re gonna get the ball back. Our defense is gonna play extremely well, and he’s gonna get us the ball back. It’s our job to go out and score.”
This doesn’t mean Michigan is returning to the Yost point-a-minute days. Running a fast up-tempo offense is great if you’re actually scoring, but Gattis said he’s more than cognizant the offense can’t put the defense in too many pressure situations.
“The three things we talk about, the things we want to dictate — we want to dictate the tempo of the game, we want to dictate the style of play, keep a physical brand of football, but also have spread elements,” he said. “And then, we want to dictate the aggressiveness as a defense. And if we can dictate those three things throughout a game and limit how aggressive an opposing defense can be, (and) also put stress on them that we’re gonna score on every series. And if they don’t stop us, the opposing offense is gonna feel pressure to go out and they’re gonna make mistakes versus our defense. Not only are we looking at it from a time-of-possession standpoint, we’re looking at it from an impact we can make throughout the game.
“But we won’t go extremely fast. We’ll protect our defense. But if we’re going fast, we’d better be scoring. If we’re scoring points, we’re ultimately putting our team in a position to be successful. And I know our defense will go out and continue to play at an extremely high level. I do not have one concern about the effect of the offense we have affecting our defense. We will do whatever it takes offensively to put our team in a position to be successful. So if there’s times where we need to go slow, we will go slow. If there’s times we need to go fast, we’ll go fast. But, most importantly, now we have an offense and a defense that’s going to be able to apply pressure on the opposing team throughout the game.”