It was easy to be skeptical a month ago. Jim Harbaugh has adapted, but he has never given up control, at least not in this way. Michigan’s offense has always been his, and before that, so was the 49ers’, Stanford’s and the University of San Diego’s. Hiring Josh Gattis to be his offensive coordinator was one thing. Letting him coordinate the offense was, entirely, another.
Still, that’s exactly what Harbaugh committed to doing.
“He’s going to coordinate the offense and call the plays,” Harbaugh said on March 18, when asked exactly what it meant to give Gattis the keys to the offense. “And that’s what that means.”
And, at least through spring ball, that’s what it has been.
After 15 practices, about 90 percent of Gattis’ offense has been installed, he said Friday afternoon. That offense, entirely, belongs to Gattis.
“(Harbaugh) hasn’t been involved at all,” Gattis said. “He hasn’t stepped in.”
With the offense run to Gattis’ liking, it took three or four practices into the spring before Michigan had things down. The new elements — run-pass options, no-huddle and the like — weren’t all too hard to pick up, according to most players after the spring game.
The hard part, Gattis said, was going against Michigan’s defense every day in practice.
“You look at the average defense, you gotta go in throughout the year and they’re gonna be a four-down, they’re gonna be a static front in static coverage,” Gattis said. “Our defense presents a number of different challenges. So once we were able to able to apply our roles and they were able to learn the installs and then learn the rules going against our defense, you were able to see a lot of successful plays happen from that standpoint.”
As defensive coordinator Don Brown pointed out just after Gattis finished talking, the Wolverines are a package defense. There’s little trickery going on — they’re going to play man coverage and dare you to beat them. And with 90 percent of the offense installed, the other 10 will be determined, in part, by what doesn’t work against Michigan’s defense.
Otherwise, it’s formations Gattis wants to add and things he wants to build on that have yet to be taught.
“One of the things to our advantage in this offense is the flexibility,” Gattis said. “This offense is what I call like a mutt of a dog. It’s got — it’s the pretty dog walking down the road and you’re trying to figure out, what kind of dog is it? And for us, we do a little bit of everything.”
At one point, as Gattis extolled his belief in the offense, Brown was standing about 20 feet to the side, behind a secretary’s desk. He was leaning down, arms crossed and eyes trained forward, out the door — a picture of intensity.
As his defense has sharpened Gattis this spring, so too has Gattis’ offense sharpened him.
“I think coach Gattis has done a great job of, got those guys going fast,” Brown said. “Which, that certainly helps us. … You better get up to speed, be running with a sense of urgency to get lined up and all those things. So, I think that part of it’s been really tremendous for us.”
And where is Harbaugh in all of this?
“He’s the CEO,” Brown said. “He’s running the program.”
That, according to Brown, means maximizing repetitions, keeping everyone on their toes and managing the bigger picture. It doesn’t include the thing Harbaugh has built his career on — running the offense.
During the spring game, Gattis called all the plays, and not off a script. Gattis doesn’t need one, he said, because this is his offense, and he knows what to do and when. This is his show.
“A lot of people have put a lot of questions and comments out there in the spring,” Gattis said. “This is a sign of what great head coaches do. They’re willing to change.”
For now, Harbaugh has done just that.