Seventy-nine days after watching the thorough dismantlement of his team in the Peach Bowl against Florida — anchored by a listless offensive performance — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh finally addressed the elephant in the metaphorical room of the offseason: the hiring of Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator.
And in doing so, Harbaugh offered resounding answers on the defining questions facing the program.
“He’s going to coordinate the offense and call the plays,” Harbaugh said, uttering 10 simple words that some fans will read more like beautiful hymns.
Gattis was hired to run the offense after spending a year as the co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at Alabama. Prior to that, Gattis spent four seasons at Penn State, two at Vanderbilt and one at both North Carolina and Western Michigan. It was during Gattis’ tenure in Kalamazoo — just over 100 miles west of Ann Arbor — that Harbaugh first heard about Gattis and his offensive prowess.
“The first time (I heard about Gattis) was … I heard from somebody or (former Western Michigan coach) Bill Cubit told me, when Josh was at Western Michigan. He had been there a month,” Harbaugh recalled. “Bill Cubit was introducing him to his son, or somebody, and said ‘Son, this is coach Josh Gattis. Talk to him, get to know him, he’s not going to be around here very long.’
“The players he’s developed at each stop from there — Western Michigan, Vanderbilt, Penn State, Alabama — is eye-catching.”
And the list is long. From Dae’Sean Hamilton to Jordan Matthews to Jordan White — an All-American at Western Michigan in 2011 — to Jerry Jeudy, and plenty in between, Gattis has shown a demonstrated ability to develop wide receivers. That should provide a boon to Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins — arguably the most talented trio of receivers in the Big Ten. Now, Harbaugh and Michigan are making a sizeable investment in Gattis’ ability to translate those skills to an entire offense.
His hiring comes with the clear subtext of a sea change in Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan. Gattis, touting his “speed in space” mantra at every turn, brings apparent philosophical differences to Harbaugh’s traditional West Coast style. While it remains to be seen how profoundly different the offense will look next season, it’s no small matter that Harbaugh appears willing to cede the keys.
“I think the biggest difference that people will see will be the tempo,” Harbaugh said. “The tempo is more up-tempo, less huddle. That’ll be number one.”
Though tempo is inherently difficult to measure, Michigan averaged the 18th fewest possessions in 2018 at 12.25 per game. This, critics argue, stems from an offense that was frequently too conservative with its abundance of weapons — an offense that tied with Vanderbilt for 30th in the nation in yards per play, at 5.9.
But it seems Gattis will prioritize aggression from the jump.
“It’s got more of an attacking feel to the offense in terms of tempo, in terms of going downfield in the passing game and some other things, different personnel groups,” Harbaugh said. “It has that same feel that we’ve always done — multiple personnel groups, you know, you’re attacking in that way.”
There’s an extent to which words will remain inherently hollow until next September. There are crumbs of evidence to suggest there is, indeed, substance behind the talk. For one, Harbaugh — a staunch advocate for the fullback — admitted the position “will be used in short yardage and goal line situations, predominantly,” a potential sign of transition toward more spread looks. Former quarterback Wilton Speight intoned at Pro Day on Friday that, based on conversations he had with people around the program, the offense was shifting closer to the spread style Speight ran at UCLA under Chip Kelly.
“I actually think, after talking to people around here, they’re kind of moving in that direction, with coach Gattis,” Speight said. “I can’t wait to watch that.”
The Wolverines return four starters along the offensive line, quarterback Shea Patterson and an array of talented weapons around them. Black, Collins and Peoples-Jones could parlay big seasons into NFL contracts a year from now. In all, Michigan boasts perhaps its highest offensive potential in several years.
If that potential reaches fruition, the hire of Josh Gattis could be seen down the road as a pivot point in the Harbaugh era.
“We’re all working together,” Harbaugh said. “… He’s really good. He’s really good at explaining it and showing us how to coach it. How’s it been for me? It’s been really good. Really enjoying it. Really learning a lot.”