Iron sharpens iron, as the saying goes.
Last season, Michigan’s defense surrendered just 275.2 yards per game — the second-fewest in the country, despite being shredded in its final two games.
The man behind the Wolverines’ success is defensive coordinator Don Brown. Despite losing a handful of key starters — most notably defensive lineman Rashan Gary, linebacker Devin Bush and defensive end Chase Winovich — the Wolverines return a formidable defense.
On the other side of the ball, first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis — who spent 2018 as Alabama’s co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach — has laid out a blueprint to modernize Michigan’s offense. He’ll spend the spring introducing players to a new system, one that he’s planning to put to the test against Brown’s defense.
While intrasquad scrimmages allow Brown to see new faces in different places as he attempts to replace last season’s NFL-bound talent and graduating class, Gattis gets to watch his own unit’s steady improvement against one of the nation’s toughest measuring sticks.
“Just the competition level of the returning players they have on defense against the returning guys we have on offense,” Gattis said. “Obviously, our guys are learning a new scheme right now so they’re focusing on the plays. But as we keep increasing the installs, the plays are going to start to come, the foundation is going to start to come.”
So far, Gattis and Brown have taken advantage of the mutually beneficial relationship to adjust their own strategies as the Wolverines begin spring practices.
“The amount of installs they have on defense and preparing our guys offensively to block those looks — if we can be successful in practice against our defense, we will be successful against any defense,” Gattis said. “It’s been really good back-and-forth, I know (Brown) has mentioned it. The things they’re able to present to us and the things we’re able to present to them, it really works well in meshing as an overall team.”
For Gattis, the biggest improvement has been the team’s ability to embrace a no-huddle offense. After four years of using substitutions to relay plays onto the field under head coach Jim Harbaugh, Gattis has decided to scrap the huddle. In 2019, the Wolverines will use signs from the sideline to dictate formations and playsets — a drastic departure from the team’s previous
status quo. So far, the offense has impressed its new coordinator with its implementation of the system.
“One thing I’m really impressed with is how fast they’ve picked up the tempo of things, just going from a huddle operation to a no-huddle operation,” Gattis said. “When you look at practice, our operation is crisp and there’s not a ton of mistakes. … That’s the thing I’m just really excited about — the element to the game of football that we’re able to bring to the game now. I lot of the things we’re going to present are going to look different as far as scheme-wise.”
Added quarterbacks coach Ben McDaniels: “That (no-huddle) operation isn’t foreign to most buildings. Almost everybody has different tempos. … It’s the communication that’s different, the verbiage that’s different. Players respond to fresh ideas, new things, and certainly there’s plenty of that going on.”
After transferring to Michigan from Ole Miss a season ago, quarterback Shea Patterson was tasked with learning an entirely new offense under Harbaugh. Now with Gattis in the fold, McDaniels will have to help him learn a new language of terminology for the second time in as many seasons.
But if there’s one defense in the country that’s ideal for measuring Patterson and the rest of the offense’s learning curve this spring, it’s Don Brown’s.