Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting
Recruiting is like location in real estate. It’s the first three rules of a college coaching job. Josh Gattis is currently ranked the 23rd best recruiter in college football according to 247, which already makes him the second-best recruiter on the Michigan staff behind only Chris Partridge (6th). Gattis’ addition also means the Wolverines now have four of the top 71 recruiters in the sport joining Sherrone Moore (42nd), Don Brown (56th), and Jay Harbaugh (71st). That’s more than any other program in the Big Ten. Furthermore, Gattis’ previous two stops were also programs with national recruiting pull – Alabama and Penn State. So he’ll fit in quite nicely here.
Ideal mix of experience and potential
Though he’s just 34 years old and you can still find his recruiting profile as a former Wake Forest player online, Gattis already has seven years of power five coaching experience at Vanderbilt (SEC), Penn State (Big Ten), and Alabama (SEC). Which means he’s not too wet behind the ears for the scrutiny that comes with a high-profile job at the winningest program in history. At the same time, Michigan is bringing in an ascending coaching talent. Not a retread, has-been, or “Harbaugh guy.” Harbaugh actually has a pretty impressive coaching tree, and has had plenty of success coaching offense everywhere he’s been. But it’s clear after a season that failed to utilize all the offensive skill recruited here, a fresh perspective and outlook was needed.
Further signals needed paradigm shift is real
It’s often misstated and exaggerated that Harbaugh runs an antiquated scheme and is too stubborn to change. This isn’t true when you look at the facts. Michigan rode a wide-open passing attack to a 10-win season in Harbaugh’s first season. Changed up its blocking scheme to run the football more effectively in 2017, and ended up with three players each rushing for more than 500 yards apiece for the first time since 1991. And in 2018 it ran more spread formations and zone read than ever before with Shea Patterson. The truth is Harbaugh has actually altered his schematic approach quite a bit in just four seasons here.
Then there’s the incoming recruiting class, which features three players – Giles Jackson, George Johnson, and Mike Sainristill – whose film and skill-sets are unique to the type of prospects Harbaugh has previously signed. They are quintessential space/slot players. You only sign one player like this if you’re just planning on dabbling in this area. You sign three of them when you’re fully committed to it.
Harbaugh’s real issue has been asset utilization and game day creativity, particularly last season. Michigan really didn’t have the quarterback play to do much in 2017, and showed plenty of creativity in Harbaugh’s first two seasons. But last season an overly conservative gameday approach and low play volume pace let Michigan State hang around longer than it should, and got absolutely destroyed in the defining game at Ohio State. In that case because Harbaugh failed to fully deploy his athletes and/or situationally adjust once we got behind. Like when we were still having Patterson run deep drop play-action passes on third-and-long down three touchdowns in Columbus. Or the snail’s pace two-minute drill before halftime of the Peach Bowl.
Gattis comes to Michigan from Alabama, which has undergone the exact offensive paradigm shift the Wolverines now seem committed to. Saban, like Harbaugh, is also a coaching believer in pro-style offenses and an over-powering running game. But the past few seasons the Crimson Tide has evolved situationally when needed. Alabama averaged only four fewer rushing attempts per game than the Wolverines in 2018, despite also having the sixth-best passing offense in the NCAA (Michigan was 79th).
If even Saban, with his perennial No.1 recruiting classes, has been willing to realize on gamedays he can’t get away with ramming the ball down every opponent’s throat and still expect to win, what’s taken Harbaugh so long to realize he can’t do it, either?
The hiring of Gattis, and bestowing upon him the title of offensive coordinator from the outset, is Harbaugh finally realizing he can’t.
Who will call the plays? Will Harbaugh really give up all control? While these are questions that will drive many a column and podcast the next seven months, they’re not as important as what imprint Gattis puts on the program between now and August 31st.
Nobody wants to win big more than Harbaugh, and he’s reinforced that for the second offseason in a row now, which we should recognize as fans. Few of us thought he would run his old friend Tim Drevno last offseason, but he did. Few of us thought he would hire a dedicated offensive coordinator this winter, but he did. Credit where credit is due. Harbaugh impressed me with the magnitude of this hire. Frankly, I didn’t think he had it in him.
So based on that evidence, we should at least have some confidence that if Gattis lives up to his resume these next seven months, we will see the fruit of those labors come gamedays. Gattis had options, thus it’s doubtful he comes here without assurances of real power and input.
Counters almost every negative narrative
Michigan can’t play Notre Dame and Ohio State right now, but short of beating one or both of those rivals this hire does about as much to counter the negative narrative facing the program as could be expected. It’s been a tough few weeks on the narrative front for the Wolverines, but this hire repels a portion of all that negative energy.
Of course, you don’t ever make a hire of this magnitude to specifically respond to public perception. But if you can do that while bringing in someone with all the aforementioned advantages Gattis brings to the table, that’s a win-win.