Niyo: Harbaugh, Wolverines are stepping up the pace

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Jim Harbaugh had something he wanted to get off his chest Tuesday night when he met with the media for the first time since Michigan’s preseason camp kicked off.

And when he was done with an animated rebuttal of Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell’s version of the months-long James Hudson transfer saga, Harbaugh sounded a bit like Forrest Gump.

“That’s what I have to say about that,” he said, before folding his notes and leaving the podium.

Jim Harbaugh

That’s hardly the only thing he had to say Tuesday, but it was the last thing. And Harbaugh was well aware it’s the thing that’ll create headlines. But with his integrity being questioned, he clearly wasn’t going to let it slide.

“I believe in being forthright, honest and telling the truth,” the coach insisted.

And to borrow another line from ol’ Forrest, you’ve got to put the past behind you before you can move on.

Which is what Harbaugh planned to do Tuesday night, heading for more meetings and then an NCAA-mandated day off a week into a camp that is — and this will come as a shock to everyone, I know — drawing rave reviews from coaches and players alike inside Schembechler Hall.

“It used to be in the past when you got an off day, you really earned it,” Harbaugh said. “The coach would say, ‘Guys, you’ve been practicing well, we’re gonna give you an off-day tomorrow.’ And that’s how I feel. Our guys earned this.”

Trusting the system

Now, how you feel about all this preseason positivity, especially if you’re a jaded Michigan fan or a Harbaugh critic, probably depends on your level of trust.

But if we’ve learned anything over the last eight months about what the Wolverines’ upcoming season might look like — and whether they’ve truly put the recent past behind them and moved on — I think that’s probably the best place to start.

With the trust Harbaugh appears to have in new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, Michigan’s most important offseason addition and arguably the biggest key to ending the Wolverines’ Big Ten championship drought.

The promise of “speed in space” and an up-tempo spread offense that better fits today’s college game is one thing. The promise that Harbaugh will let it grow — and possibly flourish — on its own is another.

But the notion that either is built on a false premise seems about as misguided as the NCAA transfer policies that are at the heart of this ongoing Hudson drama.

Ask Harbaugh what he likes about Michigan’s new offense and he’ll start rattling off answers, citing both the run-pass conflicts it creates for defenses and the attacking mentality it fosters. He'll also point to specifics with each of the position groups.

It fits the quarterbacks, most notably incumbent starter Shea Patterson, whom Gattis and Harbaugh both say has been “lights out” in practice the past week. So has backup Dylan McCaffrey, for that matter.

“They’re both really effective from the shotgun, they’re effective having the field spread a little bit more, and I think they both thrive in that up-tempo system,” Harbaugh said.

It opens room for the running backs, whether it’s a dependable starter (for now) in Tru Wilson or a big-play threat like Christian Turner or Zach Charbonnet, the true freshman Harbaugh says is "coming on like a freight train" after missing spring ball due to injury.

It also creates more opportunities for the playmakers that Harbaugh and his staff have recruited at receiver and, yes, tight end.

“Balance for us is not just run or pass,” Gattis said. “Balance is how many guys touch the ball.”

Time's a wastin'

But just as important as any of that, this new offense should finally push the pace for a program that for too long has seemed desperate to turn back the clock.

Only a handful of FBS teams ran fewer plays per minute than Michigan did a year ago, and three of those featured offenses that averaged fewer than 10 pass attempts a game. And for all of Harbaugh’s plotting, there weren’t many more that did more plodding, thanks in part to a convoluted play-calling mechanism. Per Football Outsiders, Michigan ranked 123rd in adjusted pace last season, a stat that factors in a team’s run-pass ratio.

It didn’t take long to see what kind of a problem that might present last fall, either. All one needed to see was the Wolverines’ painfully-slow attempt at running a 2-minute drill as it tried to mount a comeback in the opener at Notre Dame.

Asked last month about the improved pace of play under Gattis, senior offensive lineman Ben Bredeson, a returning co-captain, didn’t hesitate with his endorsement.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We probably cut that in half.”

Offense is only half the equation here, obviously. But Michigan’s defensive coordinator, Don Brown, likes what he sees so far on the other side of the ball. And not just because it helps his unit to practice daily against an offense that’s more like what he’ll see when the stakes are raised in October and November.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Brown said.

And so long as his players handle their business — an inexperienced secondary is the primary concern right now, particularly with Ambry Thomas sidelined indefinitely — “I think there’s a high chance that this could help both sides,” Brown said.

“Get the ball back to our offense,” he added, “and good things should happen.”

Quite honestly, they all seem to feel that way right now. @JohnNiyo