There is no shortage of tangible measures by which Michigan football’s offense improved drastically over the course of the season. It turned the ball over less, scored more points, won more games and did so more convincingly. That’s the what. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ growth, though, can be seen in the how.
None more so than the usage of Giles Jackson.
Jackson, a receiver who just finished his freshman season, possesses a skillset tailor-made to Gattis’. He’s 5-foot-9, speedy and athletic. Before Gattis found a consistent role for him in the offense, Jackson contributed as a kick returner, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t return to that role in 2020.
Jackson won’t beat defenders with physicality or technique — at least not right now, a year into his college football career. He’ll beat them in the open field, by juking guys out of their shoes, or just being faster.
Defenses must account for Jackson everywhere on the field. Once the Wolverines came to realize that, they started lining him up in different spots and putting him in as much space as they could, stressing opposing defenses to their breaking point.
Early in a win over Michigan State, the Wolverines lined up in a tight formation and saw the Spartans show zone coverage pre-snap. Jackson lines up on the boundary, with the field-side receiver running vertical and occupying the corner. Michigan runs a split-zone look, with quarterback Shea Patterson faking the handoff and Jackson darting around the edge to take it instead. Tight end Sean McKeon arcs around the edge defender instead of blocking him, giving Jackson a convoy to the open field if he can turn the corner past a bigger, slower Kenny Willekes.
Spoiler: He can.
Later in the same game, Michigan runs Jackson on an end around again, but this time from a spread formation, against man coverage with no window dressing to make it look any different. Doesn’t matter.
Anytime the Wolverines make it a contest between Jackson and an edge defender, Jackson’s going to win.
“Every time he touches the ball, I think he’s gonna score,” sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone said after Michigan’s Citrus Bowl loss against Alabama. “He has that explosive-play capability, and he makes something happen with the ball every time he touches it.”
By then, the Wolverines had regularly started putting Jackson in the backfield pre-snap, with only good things to show for it.
Against the Crimson Tide, Jackson finished with a season-high four receptions for 57 yards, including a 40-yard catch. On that play, Jackson lined up in the backfield and Michigan sent slot receiver Mike Sainristil in motion, an Alabama defensive back following and indicating man coverage.
That meant a linebacker would be covering Jackson — a mismatch of seismic proportions. Patterson faked a handoff. Jackson sprinted upfield on a wheel route, giving the linebacker no chance to turn his hips, easily gaining five full yards of separation. The throw hit Jackson in stride and he kept going after the catch.
It’s reminiscent of another explosive play Jackson hit two games prior, at Indiana. Just the same way, Michigan lined up pre-snap with Jackson in the backfield and saw man coverage. They faked a handoff and the Hoosier linebacker assigned to cover Jackson took a step forward, making an already-lopsided matchup that much easier.
Then it was just Jackson, upfield all by himself.
By the time Michigan had a handle on Jackson’s usage in 2019, it was too late to seriously impact the outcome of games. Even with that explosive play against Alabama and a touchdown against Ohio State, Jackson finished the year with just 19 touches on offense, for a total of 211 yards. There are areas of his game — route-running in particular — that will benefit from an offseason of work.
In 2020, Jackson will be a fulcrum of the offense, part by design and part by necessity. After Donovan Peoples-Jones’ departure for the NFL, Jackson will be in line for more snaps, along with Cornelius Johnson and Mike Sainristil. What’s yet unclear is whether the Wolverines see him as a slot receiver or an H-back long-term. Based on how they used him towards the end of this season, it may be the latter.
“Giles is a real ascending player,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the Citrus Bowl. “… He’s a true freshman, so I didn’t know exactly what you’re going to have in a true freshman, but he has really produced and had a heck of a year.
“… Can’t say enough good things about him.”