Two years ago, after stumbling in its season opener, Michigan regrouped and rolled off ten consecutive victories. The Wolverines spent the season climbing the polls, and as the calendar turned to November, many thought Michigan was a playoff-caliber team. The Wolverines were led by a suffocating defense and a run-heavy offense, one that chewed up both yardage and clock. Michigan’s season came undone, however, as it usually does, at the hands of Ohio State. Michigan’s run-first offense proved to play well with a lead, but not so well from behind. Steady but not spectacular, the Wolverines simply couldn’t keep up with the explosive Buckeyes.
It was more than just another disappointing finish to a once-promising season. The lop-sided loss to Ohio State exposed Michigan to a certain extent. It showed that the Wolverines could no longer continue playing with such a plodding style offensively. Michigan’s grind-it-out style of offense simply isn’t enough in today’s game, at least not against elite teams. If Michigan wanted to return to the ranks of the elite, if it wanted to challenge for a conference championship, there needed to be fundamental changes to its offensive philosophy.
Credit head coach Jim Harbaugh for realizing the need for change. Less than two weeks after the season’s final snap, Michigan introduced Josh Gattis as its new offensive coordinator. The 34-year old, first-time coordinator wasted no time installing his “Pro Spread” offense at Michigan. “Speed in Space” was the catch phrase of choice, and Gattis’ system promised to get the ball into the hands of Michigan’s playmakers, putting them in position to make plays. It was to be a brave new world in Ann Arbor. Or at least a more exciting and higher scoring world.
Changing its offense so fundamentally, as Michigan did, was bound to take time. Growing pains should have been expected, and the Wolverines had their share. It wasn’t until midway through the season that Michigan began to find its groove. But after slogging through the first half of their season, the Wolverines rolled through the second half, averaging nearly 40 points a game over their final five games. The season ended with another loss to Ohio State, but the disappointing finish didn’t take away from the gains that Michigan made offensively over the course of Gattis’ first season. If the second half of 2019 served as a glimpse of what Michigan is capable of offensively, 2020 should provide a more complete picture of Gattis’ vison.
For openers, Michigan should be more comfortable in Gattis’ system this season. The entire offense, including both quarterbacks vying for the starting position, will have more than a full year of experience in the system. While Gattis’ system may not exactly be second-nature to Michigan’s players yet, many have commented that it’s starting to feel more natural. And as the second half of last season showed, an increased comfort level pays dividends.
But it’s more than just the additional experience that will benefit Michigan. Michigan’s roster is also beginning to take on a different look. And nowhere is that change more noticeable than at receiver.
Last season, Michigan featured a receiving corps with the kind of size that would make some NFL teams envious. Nico Collins returns for his senior season, and the 6’4”, 220 pounder is both Michigan’s most experienced receiver and its biggest match-up problem. But if you look around Michigan’s receivers room this year, you’ll see a different kind of group than you’ve seen in past years.
Last season, despite limited playing time, freshmen Giles Jackson and Mike Sainristil opened eyes with their playmaking ability. Small sample size or not, the pair showed glimpses of not only what they can do, but what can happen if Gattis’ offense is run effectively. This year, there are more receivers like Jackson and Sainristil on the roster.
When talking about the incoming freshman receivers, Gattis offers the usual platitudes about athleticism and work ethic, but he can’t seem to help himself from talking about how his young receivers’ speed and versatility fits into Michigan’s system. “A.J. (Henning) and Roman (Wilson), those guys bring some speed,” Gattis gushed, adding, “They bring a skill set that’s different.” And that’s the key: A different skillset.
The more players better suited for Gattis’ system, the more Gattis and Michigan will be able to take the training wheels off of their offense, so to speak, and really open things up. And in that respect, things are trending in the right direction for Michigan. There’s more speed and versatility on this year’s team than there was on last year’s team, and the way Harbaugh and Gattis are recruiting, there will be even more speed and versatility on next years’ team.
The degree to which any of the freshmen make an impact this season is unknown, but one thing is clear: Michigan is accumulating players who fit Gattis’ Pro Spread offense. And the combination of more experience, an increased comfort level and a different blend of personnel gives Michigan and its fans reason to believe that a more explosive offense is finally in the cards. This year and beyond.