Michigan football plans to correct Josh Gattis’ biggest regret this fall

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It was a frank admission last month, one that Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis revealed to members of the media and public as his biggest regret.

As the Wolverines closed the book on a disastrous 2-4 season, one that saw them rank near the bottom of the Big Ten in nearly every major statistical category on defense, there was a glowing deficiency on the offensive side. Yes, moving the football and scoring points was an issue at times, but the discrepancy in the rushing numbers bothered Gattis.

“We didn’t run the ball enough,” Gattis said in August as Michigan kicked off its preseason camp. “I think that when you look at it, as far as average (yards) per rush, it actually went up in 2020 than it did in 2019.

“We just had two or three games where we had under 20 carries a game.”

Michigan ranked 117th in the FBS in carries per game (28.6), a figure that explains the Wolverines’ 11th-in-the-Big Ten standing in rushing yards (131.5 per game). Yet when they decide to run the ball, they were often productive — averaging a respectable 4.6 yards per carry, sixth-most in the conference.

To be fair, some of those struggles fell on the Michigan defense -- which often put the Wolverines in early holes, necessitating a swift response from the offense. And the best way to score points quickly isn’t always on the ground. But those figures — and an offseason to reflect — allowed the coaching staff to reassess their plan for the 2021 season.

A new running backs coach, Mike Hart, was hired and Sherrone Moore was promoted to offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator, a new role that has him more involved with the running game. Moore says he’s tried to implement a more aggressive, physical approach.

More: Josh Gattis still the Michigan OC, but he’s getting help from others

The conclusion, from players we’ve spoken to in recent weeks, seems to be a recommitment to moving the football on the ground.

“We’re going to want to run the football, pound it down your throat, play physical, know our calls and communicate,” redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Trevor Keegan said Tuesday. “And we’re going to execute.”

Keegan, in the mix for the starting job at left guard, said there’s been a commitment in practice in recent weeks to running the football. The Wolverines return their leading rusher from a season ago, Hassan Haskins, who not only racked up 375 rushing yards and six touchdowns in six games — but Haskins led the team with 6.1 yards per carry.

They also bring back a deeper, more experienced offensive line — a group that includes a sixth-year senior at center (Andrew Vastardis) and fifth-year senior on the right side (Andrew Stueber). Gattis also praised sophomore Zak Zinter, who could eventually become Michigan’s best offensive linemen.

“Improved, I feel like,” quarterback Cade McNamara said this week. “I’m very excited about our run game. We have a solid offensive line and (Hassan), Blake Corum, these guys are beasts.”

Michigan’s new running backs coach, Mike Hart, even provided potential clues as to how the tandem of Haskins and Corum, dubbed “1A and 1B” by head coach Jim Harbaugh over the summer, might be used.

Earlier this month, Hart made no bones about using each guy in situations where they excel the most.

More: Mike Hart says RB rotation will be as large as needed — ‘going to take more than two’

“If Blake is better on third down than Hassan, then it would be smart to play Blake, right? If Hassan’s a better short-yardage runner on third-and-1, then put Hassan in the game,” Hart said. “I think whoever earns those jobs, whoever is better at them, then that’s who’s gonna be in the game in those situations.”

Michigan is not ruling out using true freshman running back Donovan Edwards, either. In fact, Harbaugh has indicated that the former West Bloomfield star who amassed more than 2,400 yards rushing 45 touchdowns at the high-school level will “play Week 1.” In what capacity remains unclear, though the Wolverines have a penchant for utilizing younger running backs in other ways, like picking up blitzes or catching passes out of the backfield.

Meanwhile, tight end Erick All appeared to confirm Michigan’s plan to run the football more this fall — describing an offseason spent strengthening his already massive 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame and working on his in-line blocking.

“Getting (my) hands inside and driving people,” All said. “Becoming more of a (T.J.) Hockenson-type blocker. I talk to coach all the time, ‘Coach, let’s watch some Hockenson film.’ Being that type of blocker down the field, pancaking people, is my type.”

Asked if running the football has become more of an emphasis this year, All initially balked — suggesting that the game plan would change week to week based on the opponent.

“If we see any weaknesses, attack those,” All said. “But we’ve got (Hassan), we’ve got Blake, we’ve got Donovan Edwards. Why not?”

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