Michigan's success hinges on Gattis' play-calling, says Fox's Klatt

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Chicago — Joel Klatt, the Fox Sports College Football and NFL Draft analyst, was asked when Jim Harbaugh became Michigan’s head coach how long it would take him to make the Wolverines’ a top-10 program.

His response stunned his colleagues, including Colin Cowherd.

Jim Harbaugh and Josh Gattis

“I said, ‘Ah, end of the second year. Two years,’” Klatt said Friday from the Big Ten media days. “And everyone was like, ‘Bah, two years? What are you talking about?’ And they were basically a top-10 program by the end of the first year and certainly in the second year they were right in that mode. So those were my expectations.

“I had his first game. We did the Utah game, Thursday night FS1. You could see it. The brand of football he uses, I knew he was going to win, in particular, in this conference. You could argue that in the biggest games they’ve underachieved. He’s 1-5 on the road against ranked opponents. That’s going to have to change this year because they’ve got some tough road games, in particular, Wisconsin, Penn State.

"They do have some breaks in the schedule, getting Notre Dame and Ohio State at home, Michigan State at home, but I’m telling you guys, that seven straight weeks against Power Five and Notre Dame, that is a tough deal."

Michigan is coming off a disappointing finish to a season that had so much promise last fall. After losing the season opener at Notre Dame, the Wolverines won 10 straight before being blown out, 62-39, at Ohio State and then continued the collapse in the bowl game.

In the offseason Harbaugh hired an offensive coordinator, Josh Gattis to install an up-tempo, no-huddle system in an effort to get the Wolverines to that next tier competing for a Big Ten title and national championship.

How does Michigan get over the hump, beat its arch-rival Ohio State and compete for a national title?

“I don’t think it’s any one thing,” Klatt said. “So many times when you’re talking about that one game or just this one thing, so many factors can come into it. I thought they got a really bad call two years ago at Ohio State. I thought it was a bad spot, OK? And I thought the camera angle was insufficient to overturn it. That’s a raw deal. They’re probably in the playoff and we don’t have this conversation about what do they need to do to have a tipping-point moment.

“Last year I thought Ohio State was uniquely suited from a matchup standpoint to beat them and beat them handily because of the speed they could put on the field. The evidence of that was the eye-opening (NFL) combine that those wide receivers had from Ohio State that were graduating going into the NFL. They were all running in the 4.3s and everybody was like, ‘Ohhhh, that’s why they scored 60-plus points on Michigan, who plays man defense on almost every single snap.’

"Now, if you were to point at one thing, it’s the fact when you get into a big crucial matchup, at times you’re going to have to play some series where they know you need to throw and you still throw it efficiently. They haven’t been able to do that over the last few years and bringing in Josh Gattis I think with more of that style of football is a tip of the cap to that one area where I feel like they’ve struggled in those big moments.”

Gattis is 35 and was co-offensive coordinator last season at Alabama, which was explosive on offense. He coaches the receivers, and the 'Bama receivers were spectacular last fall.

He has a talented group at Michigan and a returning starting quarterback, Shea Patterson, who worked in a similar system at Ole Miss. The Michigan offensive players, since the spring when Gattis made his install, have been nothing but upbeat about the offense and the scoring potential.

But Gattis has never called plays. Mike Locksley, now the head coach at Maryland, called them at Alabama. Locksley didn’t want to spend much time discussing Gattis during Big Ten media days but praised him as a young talent and said he benefited from watching him make the calls last year.

Klatt doesn’t think it should be a knock against Gattis that he has yet to call plays in a game.

“If you would have asked me that five years ago I would have been like, ‘Yes, they’re totally undervaluing experience,’” Klatt said. “And then (Oklahoma coach) Lincoln Riley came out here and was like the best play-caller I’ve ever seen from the moment he started calling plays. I don’t want to underestimate a guy like Josh. He’s been around some incredible coaches. He’s been around some offenses that have been highly effective and efficient offenses, 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.

“(Gattis) was around that. 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, whether that’s situationally or schematically. When they just have to drop back and throw it, they struggle. That’s his biggest area (to improve). However that happens, is it being more successful on first and second down, being more creative on first and second down? Maybe.

"The bottom line is, when they got down to Ohio State, it was kind of like, I looked at Gus (Johnson while calling the game) at one point and I was like, ‘They don’t have an ability to come back.’ And I think the defense saw that, and the defense lost a little bit of their stinger, and then all of a sudden it steamrolled. And then the same thing happened to Florida. They’ve got to get to a point they can come back in football games.”

What Gattis has brought is a departure from Harbaugh’s offense. Harbaugh, after making the hire in January, said he was handing the keys to the offense to Gattis. This was a big statement, considering he has always been a major part of shaping the offense. Gattis said after spring practice he had been left alone to run the show without interference.

Klatt was asked if he believes Harbaugh can keep from getting his fingerprints on the offense.

He laughed.

“I don’t laugh sarcastically,” Klatt said. “Jim is very hands-on and should be, because he’s so successful. His brand of football works. I’ve asked a lot of guys that have coached with Jim Harbaugh, some that are in the NFL, some that are still at Stanford. I’ve talked with a lot of people that have coached with Jim and I’ve asked them the same question, and I don’t get an answer. I just get an eyeball. They just look in my eyes and they’re like, ‘We’ll see ya, Joel.’ I’m like, ‘All right,’ so, I don’t know.

“Here’s the thing, he’s never had to, so my next direction of that answer is why would he up to this point, because it’s worked. He was in the Super Bowl. He was five yards from a Super Bowl. He won an Orange Bowl with Andrew Luck. He took Stanford from a one-win team to winning a BCS bowl game, so it’s worked. Now, all of a sudden, there’s a point of, ‘OK, I’ve got to change or else I’m not going to get over to the next level.’ Because of that, maybe he’s going to change. I don’t know.”

Klatt was then told that Gattis had said Harbaugh had removed himself from the offense during the spring and had backed off.

“I mean, in April,” Klatt said, laughing.


Twitter: @chengelis