In an offseason that was anything but normal, Josh Gattis decided to re-watch every offensive snap from the Michigan football team’s 2019 season. And then he did it again. And again.
By May, Gattis estimates, he’d watched every play 50 times.
Now entering his second season as the Wolverines’ offensive coordinator, Gattis had a lot to digest over the offseason. He was a first-time play-caller in 2019, and it’d be an understatement to call his first month a rocky start. His first drive, even. On Michigan’s first play from scrimmage, quarterback Shea Patterson fumbled at the end of a 15-yard rush.
It was the first woe in a string of games defined by the Wolverines’ offensive struggles. Michigan needed double overtime just to score 24 points against Army in its next game, and the week after, it tallied less than 300 yards of total offense and just 14 points against Wisconsin.
“I think the biggest thing early on was handling adversity,” Gattis said on the Inside Michigan Football radio show Monday night. “Being able to respond from adverse situations, whether that’s turnovers or whether that’s critical situations in games. Being able to handle adversity. … We had a lot of guys that we were depending on that hadn’t played a lot of college football. So it was about getting those guys acclimated, getting them the amount of reps.”
About midway through the year, the Wolverines turned the corner. They posted a total of 229 points in the six games leading up to their regular season finale against Ohio State — an average of more than 38 per game. During that stretch, Michigan eclipsed 40 points in rivalry wins over Notre Dame and Michigan State.
One major change came when Gattis decided to call plays from the field rather than the sky box, where he spent the first three weeks. The Wolverines’ offense showed marked improvement in a 52-point, 476-yard effort against Rutgers on Sept. 28, albeit the outburst came against weaker competition. Gattis continued coaching from the field for the rest of the season and plans to do so in 2020.
“I think for me, it was a comfort level of being able to be around the players when things didn’t necessarily go great,” Gattis said. “Being able to look in their eyes, being able to rally them, being able to pull together the unit. Oftentimes, I’m always there in practice, right there before a series, before we go on the field, give them a play, ‘Hey, let’s go out here and get this done.’ You lose a little bit of that. There’s a little bit of disconnect.
“You can see things differently, but I’ve trained my eye to be able to see things all throughout my career being on the field. I think who I am as a coach and the passion that I have and the relationships with the players I think is the most important piece.”
Another significant factor, though, was the familiarity with Gattis’s up-tempo system — or lack thereof. Michigan had all of last offseason to learn its newly-minted offensive coordinator’s system, but film study pales in comparison to game reps. Once players got the hang of things, it showed.
“As we all know, the players want to learn from their own mistakes,” Gattis said. “They want to learn from their own film. You’ve got their attention a little bit more when they’re in on that rep. So being able to go back through offseason cut-ups and go back slowly and watch plays that we run that have been successful, plays that we run that weren’t quite as successful and being able to understand why this play wasn’t successful this time as compared to another time.”
Going into Gattis’s second season, there shouldn’t be any more questions about the system in place. Whether or not that helps Michigan avoid another slow start will be determined Saturday night.