By now, there are few fans of the Penn State football program that haven’t heard of the name Josh Gattis.
The 33-year-old out of Durham, North Carolina has excelled as the wide receiver coach under James Franklin for the last five years, helping to send players such as Chris Godwin and Jordan Matthews to the NFL and luring players such as Juwan Johnson and Justin Shorter to the Nittany Lions.
Gattis’ efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, as PennLive named him as one of “8 Big Ten football assistant coaches on the rise” early this year and Scout.com named him the Big Ten 2015 Recruiter of the Year.
But things haven’t been handed to Gattis along the way. The former NFL defensive back, who says he always knew coaching was in his future, has had to make some adjustments along the way.
“When the first opportunity I had to get into coaching was presented to me on the offensive side, I decided that I would give it a try, considering I had always had long-term goals of becoming a defensive coordinator, you know as a defensive player,” he said. “But I went in with an open mind and I fell in love with it. You know, I developed a passion for developing receivers.
“The unique thing about it is as a defensive back you spend your whole life watching tape and studying wide receivers and studying little details of how to keep them from getting open, and then when I was able to coach wide receivers I was able to start off teaching them how to attack defenses, how to attack defensive techniques and coverages, how to read what the defender’s about to do. So I think my experiences allowed me to bring a unique perspective to the players I was coaching.”
Gattis spent one year at North Carolina and another at Western Michigan before making his way to Vanderbilt to work with Franklin, who he’s been with every since.
“It’s awesome,” he said of working alongside the current coaching staff. “We’ve got great staff chemistry and that starts at the top. We truly love coming to work and working for each other.”
In 2014, Gattis and his wife Tesa welcomed their son Jace into the world, and they were joined by a younger daughter just last month. Gattis said that balancing family life with his work is always one of the most important parts of his day.
“It’s been a challenge,” he said. “But I stay committed, each and every day, to finding a block of time to see my family. I pick my son up every day from his school. I see him every day at lunch. So there comes some sacrifices. I think you’ve got to find the time each and every day that you devote to your family. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been a blessing too.”
He added that Jace is an avid football fan who loves attending practice and hanging out with the players.
In the recruiting game, Gattis’ prowess is well-documented as he’s considered by many to be a major part of Penn State’s top-five ranked 2018 class as well as the highly rated classes that came before.
“As a coaching staff we’re very personal,” he said of how the staff excels at recruiting. “We want to get these prospects on campus. We want to spend individual time with them. We want to get to know their families. We want to get to know their moms, their dads, their guardians, their siblings, whoever is helping these young men make decisions. We want to be a part of it. We feel like if there’s any kid in the country we’re recruiting, if we can get them on campus, we’ve got a chance.”
While Gattis has seen success off the field as a recruiter, it’s also undeniable how much success he’s helped his players see on it. He was a major part of Chris Godwin’s remarkable PSU career that led him to the NFL and played a significant role in helping DaeSean Hamilton become the program’s all-time leader in receptions.
One area, in particular, that Gattis’ wideouts excel, is in downfield blocking. Godwin, Hamilton, Deandre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall and co. have played a significant role in helping Saquon Barkley turn 5-yard runs into 50-yard runs.
“We put a major emphasis on it last year starting at the beginning of the year,” Gattis said. “It was actually Coach Franklin that put a huge emphasis on it and told me ‘hey look, you’ve got to work blocking every day.’ And honestly, in my background in the past that wasn’t something I invested a lot of time in. I was more so a footwork and ball drills and fundamentals guys. But, to me, I think the biggest thing we’ve done in two years is to change the will and the mindset of our guys.”
Hamilton, who made nine receptions for 122 yards and three touchdowns against Indiana, in the process breaking the program record for career receptions with 181, has emerged as a leader in the wide receiver room in this his redshirt senior season.
“The most impressive thing with Daesean, in having a guy that’s been around here five year, is not necessarily his age, but his willingness to continue to learn and to continue to get better and develop,” Gattis said. “I think that’s what’s special. When you can coach up your senior just as hard as your coach up your freshman and your senior works even harder as a senior than he did as a freshman, that’s the special thing. Because the young kids feed off of that.”
Gattis said that Hamilton’s work ethic and desire to get better is a sign of someone he could see getting into the coaching field down the line.
“That’s something I emphasize with a lot of my guys,” he said. “I hope I’m coaching the next generation of great wide receiver coaches. First and foremost, we like, with our skill set in that room and the details and technique and fundamental that we have, that we give them a great understanding as far as preparing them for how to be successful. So they’re able to take that knowledge well after football ends for them.”
One of Gattis’ current pupils, Juwan Johnson, has emerged as a potential breakout star for the Nittany Lions after joining the program with a wealth of hype and expectation surrounding him.
‘It’s been awesome,” Gattis said of working with Johnson. “Juwan is an unbelievable kid to work with. He reminds me a lot of Chris Godwin in his maturity and how he allows you to be able to coach him. He’s a very smart football player. He’s a guy you don’t have to correct much. Obviously, he’s blessed with a lot of physical ability. Just to see his development that he’s made from day one to now has been phenomenal.”
While Gattis has undeniably sprung onto the radar as one of the best position coaches in the Big Ten, if not the country, he said he feels there are plenty of areas where he can still improve.
“I’ve got to improve in every area,” he said. "And that’s the thing as a coach you’ve got to make yourself do. Whether that’s relating to players, whether that’s techniques, whether’s fundamentals or whether that’s scheming. We’re constantly challenging ourselves to get better each and every week. Just as I’m challenging a player, I’m challenging myself to find more ways to make these young men better.”