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When Josh Gattis first arrived in Ann Arbor as Michigan’s new offensive coordinator in January 2019, he spoke of modernizing the Wolverines’ offense through the concept of “speed in space,” a mantra that placed an emphasis on skill positions and explosive plays. 

Now, two-and-a-half years later, those days are seemingly gone. Following a season in which Michigan’s offense ranked 78th nationally in yards per game, Gattis opted for a change; “speed in space” carries less significance than it has in years past. 

“Our identity is who we form to be,” Gattis said on Wednesday, four days after the Wolverines hung 47 points on Western Michigan in their season opener. “I think every year, you look at your team and you look at what they do well. You try to build your identity around what you do well. Using our term ‘speed in space,’ it’s never about how it looks. It’s about style of play, always.” 

Gattis spent the offseason poring over film from Michigan’s dismal 2-4 2020 campaign and realized the shortcomings of his offensive strategy. He noticed that the Wolverines ranked 43rd in passing yards per game, but 96th in rushing yards, a stark imbalance which he blamed on himself. 

In April, amid Michigan’s offseason overhaul, Gattis maintained a desire to play what he branded complementary football”: Essentially, he wanted the passing game, rushing game and blocking game to work together, feeding off one another as a cohesive unit. 

That’s exactly what Gattis saw from his offense on Saturday.

“We showed our ability to do a lot of different things,” Gattis said. “We showed our ability to get in big formations and get in multiple line formations and play big ball, but then you also saw our ability to spread people out and still have a physical presence.”

Against the Broncos, Michigan still placed an emphasis on the ground, running the ball a total of 43 times for 335 yards and three touchdowns. But a large portion of those yards came on the edge, including a 74-yard jet-sweep touchdown from sophomore receiver A.J. Henning. 

The Wolverines’ quarterbacks also flourished, with junior Cade McNamara and freshman J.J. McCarthy combining for 216 yards through the air. That balanced success epitomizes Gattis’s revised approach. 

“When teams say you want to be a physical team, it doesn’t always mean playing man ball, where you put all 11 guys out there and it’s the Battle of Gettysburg,” Gattis said. “… It’s about being physical, being downhill, creating favorable one-on-ones, because we know if we can get our backs one-on-one with a safety or an extra defender, they’re winning those matchups. 

“That’s the whole key to us establishing that, building from there and continuing to grow everyone around them.” 

That’s not to say that Michigan lacks the personnel to succeed in a system predicated on “speed in space.” The running back duo of sophomore Blake Corum and senior Hassan Haskins — which Gattis labeled “the perfect combination of thunder and lightning” — has proven to be explosive so far. 

But this year, Michigan’s offense is focusing more on mounting sustained drives, an issue that plagued the unit in 2020. That’s where complementary football comes in: each play is built off the next. 

While the offense may have checked the boxes against Western Michigan, more challenges loom, beginning this week with a matchup against Washington and its stout defense. The difficulty is also amplified in the absence of senior receiver Ronnie Bell, whose knee injury is season-ending.

So, even though early returns are positive, no one is content. 

“We can always be better,” sophomore receiver Roman Wilson said on Tuesday. “In order to keep playing at this level, we’ve got to keep having good practices.” 

Added Gattis: “We had a lot of positive plays, but we also left a lot of meat on the bone quite a bit on some plays. … We can’t accept the outcome of patting ourselves on the back.”