Michigan football Josh Gattis on 2020 run game, personnel, offense

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The expectation for Michigan football in 2020 was that the offense was finally going to take off, with a cadre of talented running backs and big-armed quarterback Joe Milton under center.

The Oct. 24 debut at Minnesota confirmed what many — including this site — had believed: the offense was going to be dynamic and we’d see speed-in-space in action, finally. But it wasn’t just us here at WolverinesWire. Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer waxed ecstatic about the Wolverines season opener, likening Milton to Cam Newton and praising offensive coordinator Josh Gattis for using a ‘true spread.’

However, after averaging 8.59 yards-per-play en route to 489 yards of offensive production — Michigan only had two more decent offensive games by the final numbers: a loss to rival MSU, where the Wolverines drove the field but struggled to find the end zone, and the triple-overtime victory at Rutgers. That said, concerns about the future of speed-in-space became very real upon the culmination of the 2020 season.

One of the major gripes, which was warranted, was the running backs rotation. With four capable tailbacks, there seemed to be no rhyme nor reason as to how Michigan was working in their ball carriers. Zach Charbonnet — who has since transferred to UCLA — rumbled for a 73-yard touchdown on his first carry of the year, only to languish on the bench for 30 minutes of game time. Though Hassan Haskins appeared to be the most capable back on the roster, he went long stretches of not seeing the field, in favor of senior Chris Evans and true freshman Blake Corum.

As Michigan works its way through spring ball, Gattis says that he’s aware of the issues that plagued the run game a year ago, but the personnel is in a different scenario than a year ago. Which somewhat precludes similar problems that were encountered in 2020.

“The thing I’ll say and I think we all learned this the hard way, no matter what you do, there’s gonna be something to question about it,” Gattis said. “Looking back on it, had one back played last year, the conversation would be, ‘Why didn’t so and so and so and so play? You wasted that talent.’ I think one of the challenges when you do have a number of different players that have talent is how to equally or the right way to divide that. Obviously, we had really good play by Hassan, Blake has displayed some things. We’re in a little bit of a different situation this year. We don’t have the depth at running back and I think that Hassan and Blake have proved themselves that they’re two elite backs that need to touch the ball as many times as possible.

“I think, as we move forward, I think by situation, I feel pretty good about those two guys and what Donovan and Tavi bring as freshmen. We’re really excited about Blake and Hassan.”

That said, while Michigan averaged 70 offensive plays-per-game in 2019, it managed only 64 in 2020. But that’s a somewhat misleading number.

Against MSU and Rutgers, the Wolverines tallied 86 and 91 plays, respectively. Against the others? All had 56 plays run or less, with the least coming against Wisconsin as Michigan only managed to run 45 total plays on offense.

Gattis points out that the tailbacks actually produced more per play than in the year previous, but with having less games on the schedule — six compared to 13 — and with the offense not sustaining drives and often finding itself off-schedule, it was a sub-optimal situation to run the offense as desired. Not once in 2020 did Michigan take the lead out of the gates, and in some instances, it found itself with large, early deficits, causing the offense to shift gears from the original game plan entirely.

So, for the offense to be successful in 2021, it must find a way to stay on the field and finish, and, if nothing else, keep pace with what the opposing team is able to do on that side of the ball.

“Looking back on last year, it’s hard to really judge anything on last year, like I said,” Gattis said. “When you’re not having success in a lot of different areas – like I said, we played the second-fewest snaps on offense and we actually ran the ball at a pretty good level. I think we averaged 4.6 yards-per-rush. That number went up from a year before by a half a yard, even with four freshman offensive linemen. The problem was we were just down in games where we couldn’t run the ball. Once you’re down 21 or 28 in the first half, the game changes. Obviously, we had a ton of success in the first game running the football and the second game, we had some success there. But things change.

“When you’re not winning or you’re not staying ahead of the changes. I’ve gotta do a better job of staying more consistent in those situations when we get down in a game. But we gotta do a better job as a team of playing complementary football and making sure that we’re not getting ourselves behind the chains, not putting our defense in bad positions, and not getting behind the score early in games. With a small sample size of six games, that is by far the biggest result of anything. Not necessarily the touches or anything – it just wasn’t enough football played. I think we had three games where we had 55 snaps or less. That’s not a lot of football. When you’re playing less than 50 snaps on offense, that’s not a good sign. So we’ve gotta do a better job of staying on the field, whether that’s by third-down percentage or whether that’s maintaining long drives. We’ve gotta do a better job of staying on the field on offense.”

For Gattis, the biggest issue was the fact that Michigan was so frequently behind the 8-ball.

Once a team gets off-schedule, it’s difficult to play the type of game that you’ve planned for. He put the onus on himself in that regard, but notes that it’s of paramount importance that the Wolverines pounce early and often, rather than playing catch up, game-after-game.

“There was rhythm spots, but rhythm comes and goes,” Gattis said. “Different games had different scenarios within the game. The one area I did not think we did a great job of last year was starting the game off fast. Even in the games where we had success, we did not have opening drive success. I think we were 0-for-6 on our first drive as far as being able to drive down the field first and score. I think we started all six games off last year (trailing) 7-0. That plays to overall team flow, team chemistry, team success. But we’ve gotta do a better job of establishing early success on the first drive and the challenge as a team is going out there and eliminating other teams from having early success on first drives. So that’s an area where we didn’t play complementary football, so we’ve gotta do our part in that area.”