ORLANDO, Fla. — A year ago, Josh Gattis was helping put together a game plan for a record-breaking Alabama offense ahead of the program’s fourth straight national championship game appearance.
A calendar year later, Gattis is now a first-time offensive coordinator for Michigan, and he is tasked with formulating a way to further spoil an already-disappointing 2019 season. The Citrus Bowl will host the 14th-ranked Wolverines and the No. 13 Crimson Tide at noon Wednesday.
“This year's been awesome,” said Gattis, who served as Alabama’s co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach during the 2018 season. “The support that I've gotten from our players, the support I've gotten from our coaches, it's been amazing. So it's really living out my dream.
“I'm honored to be here at the University of Michigan to be able to lead these young men and continue moving the needle forward as we continue moving on.”
And at least until the final whistle blows Wednesday, that needle is directly aimed at a battered and beleaguered Alabama defense that has suffered serious growing pains this season. Significant injuries to key starters and unexpected early departures to the NFL have forced the Tide to shove talented freshmen into the lineup earlier than hoped.
To add to its general inexperience, the Tide defense will debut two relatively new starters in the Citrus Bowl. Sophomore cornerback Josh Jobe and sophomore linebacker Chris Allen will play in place of senior cornerback Trevon Diggs and redshirt junior linebacker Terrell Lewis, who have chosen not to play as they begin NFL draft preparations.
Of course, having practiced against some of those same players during his one-season stint as Alabama’s receivers coach/co-offensive coordinator last year, Gattis also knows the caliber of players he’ll see on the field Wednesday.
Alabama (10-2) ranks 15th nationally in scoring defense (allowing 18.8 points a game) and 16th in total defense (allowing 318.5 yards a game).
Despite some glaring problems this season — including surrendering a combined 80 points and 913 total yards in a pair of November losses to rivals LSU and Auburn — Alabama’s young defense has shown flashes of potential, including ranking fourth nationally with a plus-16 turnover margin this season.
“This defense is very talented,” Gattis said. “Coach (Nick) Saban and (defensive coordinator Pete) Golding have done a really good job putting together this defense facing some of the challenges that they've had this year as far as injuries. But they played pretty good throughout the year. … They present a number of different challenges that we have been preparing for and we're looking forward to the battle.”
For its part, the Tide will look to match wits against a Gattis-led Michigan offense that struggled early in the season under the rookie play-caller but seems to have found its way. The Wolverines average 416.8 total yards and 38.6 points a game over its last five games. For the season, the Wolverines (9-3) rank 69th nationally with 402.1 yards of total offense and and 33rd with 33 points a game.
“I think Josh has done a really, really good job with their offensive team. They present a lot of problems for you,” Saban said Friday. “They’ve got great balance. They can run the ball. They’ve got a good offensive line. They’ve got a good, young back. The quarterback has played well for them. …
"But I think the balance that they have on offense, the formation variables that they use, the things that they make you adjust to are difficult things to prepare for, and it’s good that we have a little extra time. But I think their offense has been very effective for them this year.”
Of course, how much Gattis’ familiarity with the Tide’s offensive personnel will play a factor in helping Michigan’s defense slow it down Wednesday isn’t clear.
But what is clear is the level of respect both Gattis and those he influenced at Alabama have for one another, even a year removed from their time together.
“That's a very talented room of receivers. They're great young men. And just a lot of credit to those guys,” Gattis said. “I think it's a testament to them and their character and obviously their development. I think they've really kind established themselves and I just got tremendous amount of respect for those guys.”
Said Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs III: “He was a pretty good coach, he helped us out with a lot of things, made us look at things a different way. All coaches have a different style of coaching and his style was just a little different, but we all learned from it and it made us better.”
Alex Byington is the Montgomery Advertiser's Alabama beat reporter. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @_AlexByington.