Niyo: Gattis won't be afraid to floor it as wheelman of Michigan's offense

John Niyo
The Detroit News
"Literally, he gave me the keys ... to the car," Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said about coach Jim Harbaugh handing him the keys to a rental car before going on recruiting trip.

Ann Arbor — So it’s true, after all. And it’s not just a figure of speech, this notion that Jim Harbaugh has turned over “the keys” to Michigan’s offense to a young coordinator, Josh Gattis, who spent last season working for Nick Saban at Alabama.

Harbaugh insisted this winter that he finally was ready to hand the wheel to his new hire after another disappointing ending to last season for the Wolverines. And Gattis confirmed it once more Friday after Michigan held its first padded practice of spring ball.

“Literally, he gave me the keys,” Gattis said, laughing. “To the car.”

That’d be the rental car, of course. And it was quite a trip, as Gattis got what he calls the rookie treatment — “They put me out on the road with him,” he said — before he’d even had time to unpack his bags in Ann Arbor. He joined Harbaugh on the recruiting trail for two weeks, flying here and there and driving everywhere in between.

And when the two weren’t fighting over the dinner receipts, they were building a bond that’ll be critical to the success of this program moving forward, as Harbaugh chases an elusive championship and Gattis tries to make his voice heard in a way others before him have tried — and mostly failed.

“That was really valuable,” said 35-year-old Gattis, who is 20 years younger than Harbaugh but seems to be a kindred spirit. “That really developed our relationship. It was just two guys in a rental car, going to see recruits, going out to eat every night. All that time we were sitting back in the car, laughing and joking. It really enabled us to develop a friendship, really get to know each other from a personality standpoint.”

They even got to test this new autonomy, it appears. On the road, the assistant coach usually drives, and Gattis wasn’t going to have it any other way, even though one of the things Harbaugh’s colleagues appreciate about him is that he’s not above any task. As Gattis puts it, “He’s never too big for any small thing.”

Gummed up

Some would argue that’s been part of the problem as Michigan’s offensive play-calling got bogged down in recent years, with too many cooks — Harbaugh last, but not least — spoiling an otherwise good meal, usually just before dessert.

Whatever the case, Gattis doesn’t back down easily, it seems.

“He will try to drive, and I tried to fight it,” Gattis said, smiling. “Actually, there was one time there was a snowstorm and he wanted to drive and I felt awkward.”

But the keys are his now, right? And for the moment, at least, the passengers are enjoying the ride, head coach included.

Look, everyone in Schembechler Hall still feels the sting of last season deflating finish. It was another 10-win campaign that felt like much less in the end, fairly or not. To drive that point home, Harbaugh had motivational T-shirts made for the players that note they were co-Big Ten East champs on the front with “the scores of the games we lost” on the back, said McKeon, who hung his up — backwards — in one of the meeting rooms as a reminder. Ben Bredeson, last year’s offensive co-captain, said his T-shirt is already buried at the bottom of his locker, ““and it’s not coming out.” 

A new day

What is coming out, however, is a reinvigorated feeling on the practice field, sparked in part by the arrival of Gattis and the early-stage installation of his offense. And Friday was the first chance to heard directly from him — and others — what it really looks like.

“We’re a pro-spread, that’s what I like to tell people,” said Gattis, a former NFL defensive back who spent six years coaching under James Franklin at Penn State and Vanderbilt prior to last season’s promotion at Alabama. “We run from spread mechanics. We’re no huddle. We don’t huddle — ever. But we still have a big pro-style emphasis.”

Which means his “speed in space” mantra — and social-media hashtag — won’t replace Harbaugh’s heart-and-soul beliefs. But it will fit the personnel, from starting quarterback Shea Patterson to the talented, rangy receivers and tight ends to that experienced offensive line. 

“We’re gonna have a mindset that we’re an attacking offense but we’re still a physical offense,” Gattis said. “We’re not just gonna go out there and dink-and-dunk the ball around, throwing bubble screens and all that. We’re gonna be fundamentally sound in the run game, we’re gonna be aggressive in taking our shots and we’re gonna be aggressive in trying to put the defense in conflict.”

And that’s long been the conflict with Michigan’s offense. The problems were less about the design than the implementation, particularly when it came to the pace of play. (The Wolverines again ranked near the bottom of FBS in terms of tempo last season.) That’s about to change dramatically, apparently, with more spread concepts, more run-pass options, and a lot less standing around, waiting for Michigan's talent to do the rest.

 “It’s just something new and fresh, different from the past,” McKeon said. “Because obviously if something’s not working, you gotta change it.”

For Gattis, taking the Michigan job was “a no-brainer." It's his first chance to be a full-time play-caller, and rather than doing it at Maryland, which is where he was headed before Harbaugh intercepted him with a quick offer, he'll do it for a team that has won 38 games the last four years.

“Very few times are you able to go in and take over as an offensive coordinator of a winning program," he said. "You’re going in not trying to figure out what went wrong, but how you can make it better. So that was something that was very intriguing for me.”

So was the fact that it came without a catch, so to speak. Bredeson, like most UM fans, was “excited” by the hire, but also took a wait-and-see approach, because “you kind of heard the rumors all over the place of how much control” Gattis would have.

Now that the players are seeing it firsthand — and hearing it from Gattis, whose in-your-face approach is another departure from his predecessor, Pep Hamilton — they’re pleasantly surprised.

“Definitely a first since I’ve been here,” senior tight end Sean McKeon said of Harbaugh’s more hands-off approach with the offense. “But I think it’s a good decision because (Gattis) is a great coach and he knows what he’s talking about. Coach Harbaugh still has some input, of course. But I think they’ve done a really good job of mixing together.”

And that’s the idea, really.

“To Josh’s credit, he has done a phenomenal job of coming in, looking at our personnel, looking at what we do well — what we did well in the run game, the pass game, the protections — and making it cohesive with his system,” Harbaugh said.

And to Harbaugh’s credit, he’s not fighting to take the wheel back. Not yet, anyway. There may be snowstorms in the future, but for now, it's clear skies above and open roads ahead.

“He’s been so open," Gattis said. "He’s given me the freedom to run the offense. It’s been awesome.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo