The first sign that Michigan might retool its offense came months before Josh Gattis was hired to take over the coordinator role.
Giles Jackson, then a four-star whose position in college was at question, committed last September. His skillset, based around speed, not size or technique, didn’t seem to fit into Jim Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton’s offense. To succeed as a receiver, Jackson would need to be put into open space, where he could make use of that skill set and pick up yardage after the catch.
Gattis, of course, has built his offense around that very concept.
Jackson hasn’t been much of a factor in the receiving game his freshman year with three established starters atop the depth chart. Still, he’s made a name for himself as a kick returner, and found the field on offense when the Wolverines see chances for him to stretch the field on sweeps or end arounds.
Technically speaking, it isn’t the offense he signed up for when he committed. But it’s one that fits him.
“I think (my game) helps a lot,” Jackson said. “Me and Mike (Sainristil), we’re similar. We both use that to our advantage in our offense on like the swings and bubbles, using our speed to try to beat everybody out, and I think that helps us a lot.”
Cornelius Johnson, another freshman receiver who stepped into an offense that was perhaps different than what he expected, was across the room talking to media at the same time as Jackson. A Connecticut native, Johnson was recruited by Gattis to play for Alabama, but didn’t see him at Michigan until the spring game.
There’s a stereotypical adjustment period for freshmen, at any position in any sport that both Jackson and Johnson discussed. Jackson said remembering a more nuanced playbook took time; Johnson said he struggled with the increased time on the sideline between drives. That adjustment, though, came with the added layer of the Wolverines’ new offense. One that, as any onlooker could plainly see, took time for everyone to get comfortable in.
“I feel like all our receivers can actually do it,” Jackson said. “Like I said, little details matter and that helps us a lot. Just showing every step in a route. We can’t take a play for granted. We’re never going to get a play back, so we just have to do every play to our fullest ability.”
Keeping with the theme of the last few weeks, Johnson said the Wolverines haven’t changed what they’re doing on offense. Merely, the execution has gotten to where it needs to be. “Doing a terrific job,” Harbaugh said Monday when asked about Gattis. “I think we talk pretty much every week how I feel about the job that he’s doing.”
Whether anything big-picture has changed with Gattis is, in a sense, moot. The Wolverines are moving the ball with far more ease, and that’s what matters. At the tail end of Saturday’s 44-10 win over Michigan State, Johnson entered the game due to the lopsided score. Patterson faked a handoff and rolled out, causing a defender to overcommit and giving Johnson 30 yards of open field to work with. It ended in a pitch-and-catch touchdown.
“I was not surprised at how open I was, cause that was the designed play,” Johnson said. “I was definitely expecting the ball on that play.”
Tangibly, that play is the biggest impact either he or Jackson have had on the offense this year. But they both know what they can do in the offense. And they want this year to be just the beginning.
“Sometimes, me, Mike, (Cornelius Johnson), George (Johnson), we’ll all talk about how next year, as time goes on, we’ll be the big receivers on campus,” Jackson said. “Just got to keep grinding, one day we’ll get to it.”