Josh Gattis couldn’t quite believe it when he arrived at Michigan last year and checked out the running back cupboard. It wasn’t bare, by any means.
But it featured unused mugs throughout, and in this business, that’s not a good thing. So he dove into his first season as a full-fledged offensive coordinator with talent that hadn’t been tested.
More often than not, that can get your head taken off.
Shea Patterson could vouch for such a notion, at least early on. At times, it looked amazing how well a true freshman running back such as Zach Charbonnet could pick up blitzers and protect the quarterback.
Other times, with other pass blockers making the attempt, things didn’t turn out so well. Patterson lived … and the others learned.
Gattis and running backs coach Jay Harbaugh carry a bit more confident smiles these days. The troops have been to battle, and that means a lot.
Harbaugh talked about it on Friday, praising what he calls a self-motivated and self-sufficient group for all it is accomplishing without spring practice. That’s a whole lot easier to do when it’s not the first time around the block.
The crew includes sophomore Charbonnet and redshirt sophomore Hassan Haskins, who combined for a 1,376 rushing yards in their first try. Michigan itself rushed for 1,959 yards — not surprisingly, the lowest total in the five years featuring Jim Harbaugh as head coach.
It says here, that changes this season — substantially. Even with Gattis’ loving to light up the skies — Michigan’s 3,261 passing yards marked the highest season total in the head coach’s tenure — the Wolverines will be better on the ground.
They just might be the best they been since the Harbaughs arrived, despite losing four offensive linemen off last year’s crew. Michigan maxed out at 2,768 yards on the ground in 2016, and could top that total this year.
Why? Start with the backs themselves. In addition to Charbonnet and Haskins, they’ve got veteran Chris Evans back, allowing them a top three with starting experience and plenty of competition going on.
“It’s a blessing to have a great group of guys,” Jay Harbaugh said. “Chris is the crafty vet. He’s got experience, and I’m excited for him to be able to share that with the other guys. We’re just going to keep growing and getting better as a group, competing. I know the end result of that is that everybody will get a lot better.
“When it comes down to it, you need a few guys to be ready to play. Crazy things happen over the year. You need a deep room. One of the things we all love about Coach Gat is that he loves to play multiple backs.”
Second, the offensive line will be better than expected. Line coach Ed Warinner knows what he’s doing, the running backs coach attested, and he won’t stand for anything else. Plus — like everyone from the players themselves to such no-nonsense practice observers as two-time All-American Jon Jansen has observed — the backups from last year weren’t $4.99 strip steaks.
“They were just behind four NFL dudes,” Harbaugh said.
They were, and they aren’t anymore. No is anyone completely new to Gattis’ system, other than the true freshmen.
While it’s a setback for the backs to have gone without spring practice, there isn’t an April drill in the world that can replace slugging it out with Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Ohio State on the field. Michigan can run a three-back rotation on the field that has been in those types of games.
Harbaugh is even talking about some two-back looks with Haskins playing a fullback-like role. He and Charbonnet might make a potent combo in some situations.
And, Harbaugh noted, the offensive line will allow for some tweaks, with its own upside.
“They’re a little more nimble, a little more mobile,” he said. “That means we’re going to be able to do some different stuff.”
Harbaugh himself knows it could have gotten uglier than it did early last year, had Michigan not enjoyed spring practice 2019. Even though Charbonnet couldn’t compete, he could watch and learn. Others made strides, before the fury to come.
“If this were to be last year, we’d still make the best of it, but it would be a lot more challenging,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a huge, huge advantage to have guys who have played, and that have really gone through and done it.
“A lot of our guys learn best by physically doing it. They need walk-throughs. They need practice. And the game reps, as we all know, are priceless. That’s definitely a big thing … that’s huge.”
He’s looking for a huge result, just like Gattis. It has a chance to be the best yet, under this regime.