In 2017, Sherrone Moore — then an assistant coach at Central Michigan — helped facilitate an offensive overhaul. The Chippewas’ hiring of Chris Ostrowsky as offensive coordinator prompted a schematic shift, from a traditional pro-style offense to a spread.
Moore, who coached the tight ends as part of his duties, had to make the requisite adjustments.
Two years later, the hiring of Josh Gattis as Michigan’s offensive coordinator has put Moore in a similar position. Talk of Gattis’ “speed in space” mantra has enveloped much of the spring oxygen, implicitly and explicitly promising more. Faster tempo. More big plays. More opportunities for skill guys. Production against the best. Maybe, oh maybe, some big wins.
So, how does the tight end — a hallmark position in Michigan’s offenses under Harbaugh — fit into that equation? That’s the question Gattis and Moore are tasked with answering, ahead of a summer filled with intrigue and uncertainty aplenty regarding the offense. Moore believes his experience making a similar transition at Central Michigan in 2017 can help instruct his parallel task in 2019.
“When I was at Central we went from a pro offense to a true spread offense,” Moore said. “So I’ve been through the adjustments and making the kinks of having to coach this position and having to go from, you’re always doing one thing to switching up and doing different things.”
That year, the Chippewas went from the 84th-best offense in the country to the 64th. They won eight games for the first time in eight years. And, pertinent to Moore, their tight end Tyler Conklin posted 504 yards and five touchdowns, parlaying that season into a fifth-round NFL Draft selection. (An aside: Central Michigan’s quarterback that season? Shane Morris).
That past experience is only part of the equation informing Moore’s task of transitioning the tight end group to Gattis’ “pro spread” offense. Moore said Tuesday that he spent the offseason studying Alabama’s offense. Regular collaboration with Gattis also has been integral toward smoothing out kinks thus far.
“He didn’t really come in and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this,’ ” Moore recalled. “He said ‘This is not my offense, this is ‘our offense.’ ”
That ultimate product, as with any scheme, will be beholden to its personnel. Visions of Alabama All-American tight end Irv Smith Jr. shredding defenses as a mismatch tight end out wide are inevitably restricted by the fact that junior Nick Eubanks, for all his merits, is not there yet. Perception that junior Sean McKeon can slot into the Conklin role ignores the reality that McKeon doesn’t have Conklin’s versatility.
Still, despite losing Zach Gentry to the draft, the Wolverines have the depth and talent to meld the group into a strength. Eubanks, who has just 10 career catches, has the athletic potential to thrive in a more spread out scheme. Moore singled out McKeon as an improved receiver, noting he “hasn’t dropped a pass in practice.” Early-enrollee Erik All has turned heads in the early going, highlighting Saturday’s open practice with a 30-yard catch along the sideline after beating the corner.
“It’s all about your personnel and what you can do with the guys you have,” Moore said. “So it’s been really helpful that I know the guys — from a physical standpoint what they can do on the field. And then from a personal standpoint, getting to know them a little more, since I’ve been here a year, it’s helped.”
Coaches and players have already noted some growing pains within the scheme change. The tight ends, Eubanks said, are no different.
“Knowing all the assignments (has been the biggest adjustment), as in lining up outside and inside and knowing all the concepts on offense,” Eubanks said. “It’s been a big lesson for me to do that, and I’m taking advantage of that right now.”
In terms of specifics, his answer implies the tight ends will play a more versatile role. Eubanks, for example, could more frequently line up out wide. Presumably, the spread scheme will de-emphasize the two-tight end sets that heavily populated prior offenses.
Still, until real game-settings arive, it will all remain speculation.
Through all the anticipation, uncertainty and semblance of collaboration, Eubanks distilled the platonic ideal of Michigan’s offense — and, by proxy, the role of the tight end — down to two short sentences last week.
“Coaches are giving an opportunity for the playmakers to make plays,” he said.
“That’s what (Gattis) is emphasizing on offense.”