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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan is still 9-1, but there remains loads of consternation from the fan base about the state of the offense. There have been questions about the Wolverines’ viability in the passing game as they’ve leaned heavily on the run game. There have been questions about Cade McNamara starting over true freshman J.J. McCarthy. There has been a week-to-week microscope of whether or not the offense we’ve seen every game could beat Ohio State.
In his first meeting with the media in quite some time, Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis addressed most all of those things, giving a particularly full-throated defense of McNamara, while also sharing why he likes the current offensive philosophy.
Starting with the below locker room celebration at Penn State, Gattis addressed multiple aspects of the offense in his latest press conference. Here’s everything he had to say.
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) November 13, 2021
What was it like in the Penn State postgame locker room celebration?
“Very emotional. You saw the cohesiveness of this team, the camaraderie, the togetherness. I think that’s what led to make this team very special this year. You’re talking about a team that’s really defying against all odds, for a lot of people coming into this year probably had different perceptions of what this year would go like. And the leadership of these players. They’ve bought into each other. You’re talking about a team that was in a very bad place at the start of the year, that had to commit, commit to loving each other, to believing in each other. And the leadership of Coach Harbaugh to bring this team along. So when you have moments like that where you could celebrate a victory or celebrate special moments, those are the things that will be everlasting that you’ll remember forever. You may not remember what game it was or what team we played or what happened in a game, but special moments like that, you’ll always remember for the rest of your life. And that just shows how tight-knit this family is of this team.”
Why did he call Mike Macdonald over in the video?
“Togetherness. This isn’t — there wasn’t one single play that won the game, there wasn’t one single moment. It was a team that won the game. I’m a big believer in that. And the moment to have Coach Macdonald and Coach Jay Harbaugh join us, it just meant the world to me. Coach had a moment there where he called me out in front of the team, but it’s not about me — it’s about us. We couldn’t have gotten the job done without his leadership, first and foremost, and we couldn’t have gotten the job done without all the coaches and all the players. So, for us, that just turned into a special moment to celebrate everyone together.”
How did his relationship with Cade McNamara develop?
“Yeah, just phenomenal. Cade is — I think the world of Cade. I absolutely love him as a player and as a person. Cade’s a guy that, when we talk about what he means to this program, what he means to this team, he means everything to this team. I kinda felt bad for him early in the year, because there was a lot of pressure put on him. Obviously, there was outside noise and everything. And he constantly felt like he was in defense of his own leadership and his own play on the field. We’re talking about a guy that’s 9-1 this season, a guy that’s won us many, many games and a guy that’s lost us very few games, if any. We haven’t lost a game because of Cade. I felt bad at the beginning of the year that he had to defend himself the way he did. And I think, oftentimes, we don’t appreciate what these young kids are going through, because at the end of the day, our guys are still kids. This is not a professional sport, they’re not getting paid for their service out there. They’re committing themselves each and every week to try and come out and develop a product on the field that not only pleases themselves, pleases the team, but pleases the fans. And when you put so much pressure on a certain kid and regardless of what they do they can’t be right, these kids, they see that stuff and they carry that pressure.
“To see Cade and his growth, his leadership, but also just reminding him, ‘Believe in yourself. You are our quarterback, you are the leader of our team, you are the leader of our offense.’ And he’s gone out there each and every week and he’s had some very critical moments where he’s had to toughen it up. He hasn’t always been healthy, he’s been banged up, but he’s never made excuses. He’s continued to lead the team and I think that’s gaining perspective of everybody, which he already had. He really kinda put the stamp on it even more.”
What are things about Cade that people don't see?
“Just everything — the leadership, the DNA. If you’re gonna take everything from a DNA-standpoint of what you want your quarterback to be — smart, physical, tough, composed, someone that can handle themselves under pressure — he displays all those traits. He does so much for us as far as driving the direction of the team through his daily preparation and practice. His leadership — he has the ability to demand more from others around him, and demand more in such a positive way. A lot of times, it can go one or two ways with a quarterback. If they start yelling at certain guys, certain guys won’t respond. But for Cade and his situation, all the guys trust and believe in him, so he’s got the utmost confidence and respect of all the players on our team. I think the world of him.
“I just think there’s so much — everyone focuses on stats. The only stat that matters is the wins and loss column for a quarterback. Are they able to deliver wins for their team and are they able to lead the team onto success and that’s obviously a category that he’s done an extremely good job of since he’s been here.”
Is Cade affected behind the scenes by the outside noise?
“No, I didn’t notice it bothering him, and let me say that I see this from my side of view, so not necessarily his side of view. I don’t think it affected him one bit. He continued to prepare, he continued to execute at a very, very high level. It’s just unfortunate when you see it. So for me, as a coach, it’s my job to protect his best interest and also to protect this team. So that was something that constantly — confidence is something we all sometimes need at a certain point in the season. Hey — a pat on the back; ‘Hey man, you’re right along where we need to be.’
“There were times when people were questioning, for some reason, we were questioning if we could pass the ball. It wasn’t because we were unsuccessful passing the ball, it was just because we were not attempting to pass the ball as much. So when you face that type of criticism, especially at the quarterback position, it’s our job as coaches that he understands, ‘Hey, this is not a personal attack, this isn’t an individual attack.’ This was the style of play we chose to have. It wasn’t by any means anything negative towards him. He’s handled it extremely well. He’s so mature and he’s everything you want your quarterback to be.”
How has the offense evolved since he's first taken over?
“Well, the commitment to run has been tremendous for us. Obviously, coming into the season, we felt really great about who Hassan and Blake were. Obviously, Hassan, we’ve always felt strongly. When we talked about it in the offseason the first time — I know it’s been weeks since I came up here — but we wanted to make a commitment to the run game. We wanted to establish that. We felt like, considering the depth that we had up front, too, you think about going into the season, we had seven or eight returning offensive linemen who have started in games, considering all the different lineup switches we had last year.
“Last year was a little bit different. Not to reflect back on 2020, but we didn’t have a consistent starting five up front all year long. So, it was a swinging door of people going in and out of that front five. When you look at trying to tailor it around the best players, we felt like our running back room was by far the best position group on the team. So the commitment there, the guys up front, I can’t say enough about what Coach Moore has done with the offensive line and the mentality and our embrace of our identity that those guys have created because they’ve allowed us to be successful in games and critical situations.
“You’re always going to change it. The real answer is it’s always going to change to what’s the best things your players do well and to fit your best players.”
What is it about Hassan that he can handle the heavy workload?
“Hassan — he can handle anything. He’s a special kid, man. He’s another one I can’t say enough about and I think he’s a guy that deserves so much attention, so much respect on a national level, what he brings to this team. He’s not going to have some of the individual stats of some of the top premier running backs in the country because we play quite a few running backs. But it’s without a doubt, Hassan and Blake — we feel that way about Hassan, if not one of the best two running backs in the country. Just what he’s brought for our team, not only in the run game, pass game, his commitment — he does a phenomenal job of taking care of his body, to be able to put himself in the position to carry the ball 20-30 times a game.
“The other thing I love about Hassan is his leadership. He’s a very unselfish-type player. He doesn’t complain who gets the ball, and I think that’s the unique thing that I think Coach Hart has done an extremely really good job of this year is balancing that room. Balancing that — those two guys pull for each other as much as anyone on our team. They want each other to succeed. And when you have two running backs like that that can share, they can share the rock, they can share the carries, but also share success, and not being caught up in individual statistics, that just makes your team special.
“Hassan — we definitely had to keep track of him last week, just from a numbers count. But he’s an ox, man. He can carry the weight for sure.”
Does he have to be delicate with inserting J.J. McCarthy because of Cade?
“No, no, that’s never the approach that we take. It’s just really by play specifics. Certain plays we’ll have certain tags, certain plays based on personnel. And that’s not just anything at the quarterback position, we do that at quite a bit of it — whether it’s running backs, whether they run certain plays or run well, or receivers having certain tags for different type of personnel that we want in on that play. Yeah, that does not affect whatsoever, because Cade has always been our QB1. There’s been no doubt, no hesitation there. I’ll go into any battle vs. any team with Cade as our quarterback. And that’s the type of confidence we have in him, that’s the leadership he displays, and that’s the trust and the relationship we have together.”
Does he have a plan against Aidan Hutchinson in practice?
“This is probably out of my position but Aidan Hutchinson is the best college football player in the country. And I think for a lot of you all, we have some very powerful voices here and I would encourage everyone to use that powerful voice to spread that message, because what Aidan brings to this team, he’s the reason — I won’t say it’s one person specifically, but Aidan could have left last year, right? He could have entered the draft. We became a different team last year — and not to reflect back on when we lost Aidan — it’s kind of like seeing one of your superheroes go down. A lot of people can blame one thing or another, but that was a big impact on our team, along with the confidence of our team. And to have Aidan come back, to watch him commit himself to an offseason workout, to never doubt, to never question — he was one of the first guys to announce he was coming back, to really kind of drive a lot of guys to end up coming back, whether it was to play for a sixth year, or to have a guy like Josh Ross or Andrew Vastardis come back as leaders.
“So Aidan is the absolute best player in football, there’s no doubt in my mind. The impact he brings to this team — yes, in practice, we hate it, because of the type of disruption he shows in games is the same way in practice. There’s no tackle that can block him, there’s no tight end that can block him. And he impacts the game in so many more ways than what statistics show. He’s very disruptive. Obviously, he’s a pass rusher, he affects the game in the run game, but if you’re an opposing offensive coordinator, he changes your whole game plan and how you choose to attack a defense, by having a guy that has much threat to really affect a play. He’s a guy that’s a true difference-maker.
“So I would just encourage, man — I think he should be in the discussion for the Heisman. Regardless of numbers, when you talk about someone who’s impacted the team greater than anyone else, he single-handedly impacted this team and led us to be 9-1. I think the world of Aidan.”
How does he assess the wide receivers?
“We’ve had some really bright spots. The one thing I would say we probably haven’t had is the consistency of each game, who’s it gonna be. It’s almost been a different person by different games. One guy steps up this game, another guy steps up that game. But they’ve come along. They’ve done everything we’ve asked of them, they’ve made some plays. We’ve left out some plays as well to be made. But they’ve been bought in. We haven’t passed the ball as much as some people would like or maybe to their liking, but they’ve never complained one bit. They’ve bought into the mentality, the identity of our team, they’re doing a phenomenal job of blocking in the run game, creating opportunities for us in the pass game. So, very, very pleased there. We’ve just gotta stay consistent. We’ve just gotta get a little bit more healthy and stay consistent there, have the same bodies out there each and every week. But really like where they are right now.”
Where would he like to see them improve?
“Well, this week, we’re gonna have a tremendous challenge. You saw the man coverage that we go against, so these next few weeks we’ll see a ton of man coverage which we haven’t quite seen throughout the year. That’s an area where Maryland really excels. We’re gonna have to win some one-on-one battles, we’re gonna have to win with details, releases, ball placement, accuracy and all that deal. But we’re gonna have to win in the contested catch ratio and that’s an area we don’t really have a ton of banked reps at this year because of how much zone and different type things that we’ve seen.
“But very pleased. Just continue to improve each and every day. That’s our No. 1 goal is how do we win one week at a time. Obviously, two weeks guaranteed left in the season and these are the two most important weeks of our program and we’ve gotta go out there and accomplish our goal of winning this upcoming week.”
Is this offense more suited to him?
“I think this question has come up before — so, there’s no true identity when we talk about speed in space. That’s creating favorable matchups. We’ve had plenty of speed in space plays, whether that’s Blake Corum — it may not come as the same type of identity as some people would like to see, but we’re running gap schemes, we’re getting our running backs one-on-one out in space out on safeties and they’ve been able to make those guys miss by whatever means. I think whenever, oftentimes when people see that term, they think it’s the air raid. It’s not the air raid. We want to be balanced and that’s the thing is we always want to be balanced in what we do and who touches the ball.
“So going into the season, the physicality, the precision and smart, the toughness — that’s important. Just shaping it around this 2021 team and it’s kind of talked about, identity — yes, I think identity is gonna change each and every year based on the strengths of your players and the strengths of your team and what we need to do to be a successful team. And I think one of the things that we’ve really had to do this year is really play complementary football, which we have done an exceptional job — offensively, defensively, and special teams playing unison as one, as a full team.
“I think that you’re always gotta be able to shape yourself and you’ve always gotta be able to change and grow, and you grow with your players and what they do best, and you grow with your team and where your team is positioned. I think that’s credit to Coach Harbaugh himself, being able to guide this team along in the right direction. We’re playing together, regardless of what we do. And the chemistry and camaraderie, the offense, the defense, and the special teams, which has led this team to be a special team.”
Thoughts on the red zone execution
“Yeah, the execution in the red zone, it’s been good. First, when you talk about red zone, first and foremost, the No. 1 objective is getting points. That’s the key area. You win games by scoring points, and you win games by scoring more and more points than the opposing team. There’s times when obviously we wish we would have scored a couple more touchdowns in there, but I think the thing that’s been a little more strategic is — so, there’s give and take, right? Jake Moody, first and foremost, the best kicker in the country, hands down. Should win an award, so let’s make sure that he does that, get that on national presence. But however, when you’re talking about the difference of touchdowns and field goals, you’re also talking about the difference in is it reasonable field goals that you’re giving your field goal kicker and the chance to make? Not putting him out there for bad field goals. Are you taking care of the kick line? Are you getting in position to get those points? We feel very confident in whether it’s certain points on the field, whether that be the 30 of the week, or the 25, that we’ve got guaranteed points. So your risk obviously goes down in that scenario.
“But, obviously, we were heavy run in the red zone. I don’t think anybody can deny that as far as calls. Could there be more aggressive calls? Yeah. We’ve done a whole red zone breakdown. But ultimately, as far as our No. 1 accomplished goal, our goal of scoring points, we feel absolutely great about that. So that’s the thing. We want to be able to score more touchdowns in the red zone, which we’ve scored a high volume of touchdowns, but we also want to limit the field goals. But ultimately, as long as we score, that’s our No. 1 goal. But we have to decrease the amount of field goals, for sure.”