Michigan QB Shea Patterson discusses new offense after spring game, April 13, 2019 in Ann Arbor.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
A thirst for nostalgia can only provide so much.
Eventually, you adapt or you disappear.
Jim Harbaugh’s first four years at Michigan were heavy on the old stuff. Fullbacks, 22 personnel. Discussions about steel being inserted into one’s spine and homage after homage to the program’s storied past. There was adaptation, too, of course. But not much.
Now, with an obvious path in front of him, Harbaugh is going full steam ahead toward modernizing an offensive system that could help take his program to the next level.
“It just feels natural out there,” quarterback Shea Patterson said Saturday. “(I have all these) playmakers around me and all (these) different ways we can get what we want.”
Harbaugh’s biggest change this offseason was the biggest of his coaching career so far. He scrapped the core of an offense he’d spent more than a decade fine-tuning and winning with, a system that made him a young coaching star and got him to a Super Bowl. He gave up his play-calling duties. He gave up the fullbacks and the grinding pace. Because he had no choice. In short: He did what good head coaches do.
When modern football forces your hand, you adjust. And entering Year 5 under Harbaugh, Michigan’s new-look offense just makes sense.
Michigan had no other choice. The old stuff worked sometimes, but not all the time. Against top-level teams, it just looked old.
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The Wolverines unveiled the basics of Josh Gattis’ system last week during a public open practice at Michigan Stadium and showed much more Saturday during the team’s annual spring event in Ann Arbor. They didn’t show a ton. But they showed enough to prove change is happening.
Logical change. Beneficial change.
This is a no-huddle, check-with-the-sideline, tempo-controlling spread system that features pro-style run concepts and allows the quarterback and his receivers to attack all areas of the field.
Just as important, it’s not predictable.
On numerous occasions Saturday, Patterson ran up to the line of scrimmage to fake a hurry-up situation that would send the defense scrambling. Then, the offense would pull back. The coaches on the sideline would read what’s on the field before sending in a play, possibly with a run-pass option tag. And Patterson would do what h does best: Deliver the football on time to athletes who can help him out from there.
He took several easy crossing routes during the early portion of Michigan’s scrimmage, including one to Ronnie Bell that went 45 yards for a touchdown. Three others, including a perfect run-pass option to Tarik Black, went for first downs. They were effortless plays. Plays that exploited holes in a defense. Not plays hellbent on smashing a hole that never existed.
This is modern football. And it just makes sense.
“Half those throws out there had RPO tags. So we could’ve run or thrown. This (offense) just gives Shea options and we’re never in a bad look with an RPO,” Michigan tight end Sean McKeon said. “They stop the run or try to blitz, then the throw’s open. Cover the throw, the run’s open. That’s the difference.”
There were few hints this was on the way a year ago, though fans had their hopes. Harbaugh remarked a few times that he’d like to change up personnel groups and get more space on the field. RPO concepts intrigued him, so he figured he’d add a few in. He hired Ed Warinner, who modernized the run game by switching nearly everything to a zone scheme. But the core of last season’s offense never changed. It was still way too slow. Way too predictable. And much too difficult to master at the college level.
Patterson remarked Saturday that Gattis is his sixth offensive coordinator in his last six years of football. With that in mind, he did great work last season when he adjusted to something he’d never run before and wound up with 2,600 yards, 22 touchdowns, seven interceptions and the best quarterback rating of any full-time starter at Michigan since 2000.
But this is legitimate change.
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Now, Patterson’s back in his comfort zone. In fact, so is everyone, since most of the players on this team ran some version of this in high school. This style of offense puts constant pressure on defenses to be ready for all forms of tempo.
The offense Michigan ran the last four years did none of those things.
“We all know (in practice) we have to know what we’re doing, what our adjustments are or there’s going to be chaos with everyone scrambling around,” senior linebacker Khaleke Hudson said of defending Michigan’s offense this spring. “That’s helping us as a defense (because it’ll help us prepare) for other teams.”
Michigan’s biggest offensive weapons this season are Patterson and his wide receivers. Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins missed spring ball with injuries, but when they return to health, they’ll join Tarik Black in what should be one of the most talented receiver trios in the country.
Michigan also has legit slot options in the form of freshman Mike Sainristil and sophomore Ronnie Bell. The Wolverines won’t spend this season wasting their talents on jet-sweeps and gimmicks. They’ll line them up against a safety or nickel back in the slot, or motion them into a mismatch, and let Patterson throw them open.
Because that’s what wins football games now. That’s what makes sense. And that’s how you get the most out of your roster.
It took a while to get here, but Harbaugh’s made the leap.
Now let’s see how it all looks against someone else in the fall.
Follow Nick Baumgardner on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.