At this time last year, Josh Gattis fielded questions for the first time since joining the Michigan football team two months earlier.
As the Wolverines’ newly-minted offensive coordinator leaned on a glass timeline of the program’s history at the Towsley Museum, he prepared to speak to reporters about modernizing Michigan’s traditional offense.
But before unveiling his plans to revamp the Wolverines’ system, Gattis told of a different assignment. After luring Gattis away from his previous role as a co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at Alabama in January 2019, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh brought him on a two-week recruiting road trip.
“That (trip) was really valuable,” Gattis said in March 2019. “That really developed our relationship. … It was just two guys in a rental car going across the country to see recruits. In that time, we were just sitting back in the car, joking, and it really enabled us to develop a friendship and really gave us a chance to get to know who we are from a personality standpoint.”
More importantly, it was during that trip when Harbaugh handed Gattis the keys to Michigan’s offense, relinquishing control to a full-time offensive play-caller for the first time since returning to Ann Arbor in 2015.
Even with a clear vision in place, Gattis’s first season calling the shots was anything but a smooth go-around. There were kinks to work through and an identity to find, and Gattis needed to experience the ups and downs to figure them out.
After it took his unit 43 minutes to score in a three-possession blowout loss at Wisconsin, he moved down from the coaches box to the sideline the next week. For him, calling the shots from there felt more natural than watching through a glass panel overhead.
But by now, that learning curve is in the rearview mirror. And coming off a season in which Michigan finished seventh in the Big Ten in total offense, there’s reason to believe the 2020 Wolverines can take a step forward in that department. With a system now firmly in place, the roster has taken upward of a year’s worth of reps and the focus on the recruiting trail has shifted toward bringing in speedy players that fit Michigan’s new mold, such as incoming freshman receiver A.J. Henning.
And even while learning new dimensions of the offense on the fly a season ago, the Wolverines showed flashes. In the four games leading up to Thanksgiving, Michigan averaged 41.5 points and over 400 yards of total offense in blowout wins over Notre Dame, Maryland, Michigan State and Indiana.
Now that Gattis has a feel for play-calling, he’s more equipped to ensure his weapons are optimized. Proof of that lies in the evolution of how Gattis used pieces like sophomore receiver Giles Jackson, whose progression from kick returner to downfield threat unlocked a new dimension of the offense. By November, Gattis had designed jet sweeps and wheel routes specifically for Jackson’s open-field speed.
This fall, Gattis will have a speedster in Jackson, vertical threat in senior wideout Nico Collins and junior slot receiver Ronnie Bell at his disposal to break defenses down in different ways. In the backfield, he’ll look to maximize two proven returners in sophomore Zach Charbonnet and redshirt sophomore Hassan Haskins, while mixing in senior Chris Evans’s pass-catching ability.
The Wolverines have not yet named a starting quarterback for 2020, and with all spring practices canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it’ll be a long time before they do. But redshirt junior Dylan McCaffrey and redshirt sophomore Joe Milton will both be duking it out for the right to lead a unit that’s more than capable of breaking through.
At the center of it all lies the man with the keys.