Michigan finally embracing Al Borges' preferred offense
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Al Borges finally can stop using Ronnies to sell dreams.
For the first two years of his tenure as Michigan's offensive coordinator, Borges had to sell recruits on the idea of an offense that once existed and could exist again. But the plays Borges called on Saturdays bore little resemblance to the ones in the playbook of the offense he always intended to run. So, when he chased a bruising back or a rangy receiver, Borges had to ask recruits to ignore the actions of the guys in winged helmets and take a leap of faith. To drive home the point, Borges would show video of Ronnie Hillman running between the tackles in Borges' San Diego State offense or Ronnie Brown carrying out a play fake to preface a Jason Campbell pass in Borges' Auburn attack.
Now, Borges can shelve the Ronnies and simply call up video of the Outback Bowl. The result of that game wasn't what the Wolverines wanted, but they did gain 426 yards and score 28 points against a South Carolina team that finished 11th nationally in total defense and 13th in scoring defense. (It isn't the offense's fault Michigan's secondary collapsed on multiple occasions.) Most important, the Wolverines achieved that production using a quick-and-dirty version of the offense Borges and head coach Brady Hoke always wanted to run. "What we had to do before was sell what we were going to be without direct evidence of Michigan being that," Borges said. "So we would have to use old tapes of places I've been before just to show them what direction we wanted to go. Otherwise, it was just lip service. ... It's one thing to say it. Coaches will say a lot of stuff to get kids to go there. Now they can see it."
A bad break late last season allowed Michigan to begin its transition to the coaching staff's preferred offense even earlier than anticipated. The ulnar nerve injury that kept Denard Robinson from playing quarterback in the Wolverines' final five games allowed Devin Gardner to step in and prove he could pilot a pro-style offense in which the quarterback typically lines up under center and tailback runs from the "home position" -- Borges' term for the area either directly behind or slightly offset from the quarterback -- set up play-action passes. That was always the vision Hoke and Borges had for the offense when they took over at Michigan.
"When we came in here, we decided we had to improve our defense, had to run the football downhill -- do all the things that may seem a little old school and maybe even boring to some fans," Borges said. "But they still win. I think Alabama has proven that. I think LSU has proven that. Most teams that are winning -- and winning big with consistency -- are still doing it the old school way."
Why did it take so long to reach this point? Borges knew he had a special player in Robinson, who was recruited to run Rich Rodriguez's spread offense. Robinson was dynamic, difficult to tackle and beloved by his teammates. So the coaches decided it would be easier if they absorbed the culture shock instead of their players. They loaded up on zone-read quarterback runs and ran an offense closer to what Rodriguez had run than the one they ran at San Diego State. "When I was at San Diego State, we didn't have a quarterback run in our offense," Borges said. "Here, we had 11. It was a completely different offense."
Borges, who does a forensic study each offseason of the top offenses in the nation in an attempt to discover why those offenses worked, has a much greater understanding of the allure of the spread option after working with Robinson for two years. The offense can always scheme to overload the defense on the play side, overwhelming with superior numbers. Still, it has one major drawback. "There is a case for spread offense. Because it looks so good on the board," Borges said. "There are no runs that look bad. But you pound your quarterback. You're asking your quarterback basically to be Superman. He's got to throw it. He's got to run it. He's got to do it all. ... But you've got to keep him healthy -- which we couldn't do with Denard our second year. It's a tall order for the kid. As a coordinator, I like to distribute more."
So this spring, Borges is distributing. With tailback Fitz Toussaint sitting out of contact drills as he recovers from a broken leg, Justice Hayes, Dennis Norfleet and Thomas Rawls are trying to earn carries. Veteran receivers Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon are catching their share of passes, but so are much taller youngsters Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. Meanwhile, Hoke estimates seven players have legitimate chances to earn the three open starting positions (center and both guards) on the offensive line.
One position that isn't open is left tackle. Taylor Lewan could have gone in the top five of next month's NFL draft, but he opted to return to Ann Arbor for one more year. That might have been the best news for Gardner -- even better than the news from the NCAA that he would also be eligible to play at Michigan in 2014. "I'm 99.9976 percent sure," Gardner said, "that I'm not going to get touched from that side."
Lewan geeked out in the meeting room this offseason as Borges had the Wolverines study NFL teams. Lewan gushed last week about a run play that uses Power concepts on the play side mixed with zone concepts on the back side. Lewan also loved the fact that even his younger teammates didn't seem to need any extra push from the veterans. Lewan had figured he and the other seniors would have to ride herd on the youngsters during offseason workouts, but he said that wasn't necessary. All the Wolverines came ready to work. "They know what they want," Lewan said. "What they want is a Big Ten championship."
Hoke wants the same. During his first two seasons, he offered public praise sparingly because he believes the players need to understand that nothing short of Big Ten titles is acceptable at Michigan. "That Block M," Hoke said, "carries an awful high expectation." To reach that level, the Wolverines' offense will have to produce. The defense is inexperienced on the line and in the secondary, and the loss of linebacker Jake Ryan to a torn ACL last week creates a leadership void that could be difficult to overcome. So the offense will have to pick up the slack.
Gardner is ready. He swallowed hard and moved to receiver last year to help his team, but he always knew he wanted to be back at quarterback. "Mentally, it was pretty difficult, because I had never played another position in my life," Gardner said. "But the team needed me. I knew for sure I was going to come back and play quarterback and prove this could be my team."
When Robinson got hurt at Nebraska on Oct. 27, the coaches didn't immediately turn to Gardner. They inserted Russell Bellomy at that point, because Gardner hadn't taken a snap in eight weeks. When the Wolverines returned from Lincoln, coaches immediately began prepping Gardner. They had little time to overhaul the offense for those final four regular-season games, but the break before the bowl game provided an opportunity to give the returning players a taste of the future. "We weren't perfect," Hoke said of the Outback Bowl offense. "But I think our downfield attack improved. Some of our play-action stuff was better."
This spring, Borges and his assistants will install the full version of the offense the coaches always intended to run. "We're just still scratching the surface," Borges said. "We started getting back to our pro-style offense after Denard got hurt. We totally transformed." The 2013 offense's top recruit has faith in Borges to deliver on his promise of a dynamic pro-style offense. Of course, the 6-foot-8, 308-pound Lewan might be the only player on the roster allowed to express that faith in his coordinator with his tongue planted so firmly in his cheek. "He's smarter than he looks," Lewan said.
SI Now: Why did Oregon get left out of Sugar Bowl?
SI Now: Rose, Fiesta Bowl preview