Al Borges adjusts with Michigan offense
It used to be when Al Borges stepped on a college campus, big changes were coming.[+] EnlargeIcon Sports MediaAl Borges has changed his usual offensive approach to take advantage of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson's running abilities.
Borges has spent his career hopscotching around the country, from the Pac-10 (Oregon, UCLA, Cal) to the Big Ten (Indiana) to the SEC (Auburn) and then to the Mountain West (San Diego State). He has done so with a singular purpose, to transform offenses and get them on track. For the most part, it's worked.
Borges doesn't keep the status quo with the groups he's paid to upgrade. He has a tried-and-true system that he implements, and if there's collateral damage, so be it.
"What I've done in the past," Borges said, "is I've changed jobs and pretty much just blew up everything that they did before, started over again, put in the offense and away we go."
But when Borges arrived at Michigan in January to be offensive coordinator, he left his dynamite at home.
Unlike most of his previous stops, Borges didn't inherit an offense on life support. Michigan had the nation's No. 8 offense in 2010, led by a quarterback in Denard Robinson who shattered team records for total offense (4,272) and touches (547). Robinson became the first player in NCAA history to eclipse 2,000 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in a season.
The Wolverines were no ordinary rehab project and Robinson was no ordinary quarterback. Add in the fact that Michigan had both thrived in and recruited for the spread offense, and it left Borges with a challenge unlike any in his extensive career as a coordinator.
"I'm not a spread coach," Borges said. "I've been a pro-style coach forever. But you've got what you've got, and it just so happens we've got one of the most prolific running quarterbacks maybe in the history of this game. In the past, we'd make adjustments to who the quarterback was, but not these kinds of adjustments.
"In that sense, heck yeah, it's been huge."
The process has tested both Borges and Robinson, among others, and resulted in some growing pains along the way. But Michigan has gradually formed a new and effective offensive identity as it prepares to face No. 11 Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3.
Michigan's dramatic turnaround on defense is the biggest reason for the team's improvement this fall, but an offense that averages more points (34.2 ppg) than last year's unit shouldn't be dismissed. While the Michigan defense returned to its roots this fall, the offense's story is all about adaptation.
"Both of us had to get used to being around each other and working with each other," Robinson said, "seeing what pushes each other's buttons and what doesn't."
Borges' first step was resisting the temptation to push Robinson's button on every snap.
In 2010, Robinson had 256 rushes. The same year, San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley had 19 rushes under Borges' watch. Borges admits it's "intoxicating" to call Robinson's number. But he knew he had to reduce Robinson's carries load to preserve him for the long haul.
The goal: 15-17 carries per game. Robinson ended up with 208 for the regular season, an average of 17.3. While he had some health issues along the way, including a midseason staph infection in his throwing forearm that caused him to spend a night in the hospital, he didn't boomerang on and off the field as he did in 2010.
"That injury was one thing that was making us think twice about how much we ran him, and there were a lot of issues," Borges said. "He lost a little bit of speed in the middle of the season, but toward the end he got it all back.
The emergence of running back Fitz Toussaint in Big Ten play helped ease the burden, and Robinson finished with back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances against Nebraska and Ohio State.
Borges maintained a spread-offense framework to showcase Robinson's running ability. But the biggest challenges for "Shoelace" came in the passing game.
Robinson had respectable passing numbers in the spread as a sophomore -- 62.5 percent completions, 18 touchdowns, 11 interceptions. But Borges' system required him to take more snaps from under center, make deeper drops and locate receivers running downfield routes.
"Being able to take seven-step drops and quick five-step drops, make sure I have more time with the receivers, all of those things I had to work on," Robinson said. "I mean, they were going downfield. They were doing 15-yard come-outs; they were doing quick outs, stuff like that. I needed to be on time. Things needed to be perfect."
Robinson was far from perfect for most of the season.
He completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in three of his first four games and five of his first nine. His 12 interceptions in the first nine contests eclipsed his total from last season. Robinson had only three games without a pick and completed more than 10 passes in just half of his games.
Michigan's 262 pass attempts and 145 completions both represented the team's lowest totals since the latter part of the Bo Schembechler era.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Tony DingMichigan coach Brady Hoke says offensive coordinator Al Borges checks his ego "every day at the door."
"Our passing game is completely different from what they did here in the past, other than a couple of routes," Borges said. "I don't care who the quarterback is, you're going to have to learn that stuff, and we knew there was going to be some transitional growing pains that went with it. So it took him a few games. He showed some flashes of really knowing what he was doing, but then we'd take a step backwards. Mostly it was in the interception area.
"But as he's gotten toward the end of the season, he's caught on to what we're doing. He's a smart kid. He understands football."
Robinson made strides in his final two games, combining to complete 25 of 35 passes for 347 yards with five touchdowns and, most important, only one interception.
"He was healthier at the end of the year," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "He became more comfortable and more decisive in what he was going to do, either in the run game or the throw game."
Michigan didn't run a pure spread offense this year but more of a hybrid between the spread and the pro style. Borges makes it clear that Michigan's future is the pro style, and he began building for life after Robinson by using two-back formations and other elements of what the offense will be.
But for stretches, the unit didn't look all that different from the way it did in 2010.
"The menu is more tipped in the spread direction," Borges said.
Despite his pro-style roots, Borges didn't shun the spread. After resigning from Auburn in December 2007, Borges took the next year off, his first since starting coaching, and made visits to college teams like Mississippi State, Florida and Cal, as well as to the NFL's Detroit Lions.
Then, in preparation for Michigan's season, he consulted with spread-offense practitioners like Temple coach Steve Addazio.
"You've got embrace it," Borges said. "You can't resist it. You've got to close your mouth and open your mind and make sure that you're doing what's best for the talent you have. You can be stubborn and say, 'OK, we're running our offense and I don't care. They're just going to have to learn or I'm going to fire the players and get guys in there who can do it.'
"But you'll end up 6-6."
Some playcallers are known for their stubbornness, but Hoke wasn't concerned about Borges' ability to adjust. "It becomes difficult if you think this game's about you and about what you know," Hoke said. "It's never that. He's a guy who has a system we all believe in and what we want to get to and what we will get to and run, more of a pro-style approach.
"But Al's ego, he checks every day at the door."
The same holds true for Robinson, who is gradually finding his way in a new system.
"It feels good," Robinson said. "The best of both worlds."
Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. Check out his work in the Big Ten blog. Adam can be reached at email@example.com
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