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Aided by '13 recruiting class, Borges and Michigan move closer to offense of choice

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 12, 2013

The questions began almost as soon as Brady Hoke was hired as the coach of the Michigan football team more than two years ago: what would Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges, who believed in a more traditional style of offense, do with a roster designed for the spread?

For the last two seasons, the issue of clashing offensive philosophies and personnel cast a shadow of uncertainty on the Michigan program.

As Hoke initially promised, Denard Robinson, a quarterback ideal for the spread-option offense, did remain the team’s signal caller, at least until an elbow injury forced him out of his regular position for the team’s final five games last season.

As talented as Robinson was, his skills never matched up with Borges’s ideal offense. The coordinator adapted as best he could by incorporating more spread-type plays and formations, but the sum result was an offense often marked by inconsistency.

In senior Devin Gardner, the player who replaced Robinson last season, Borges has a quarterback who can more consistently make the type of throws the coach wants — and it showed in those last five games, when the playbook became more downfield-oriented.

According to Borges, expect more of the same with Gardner back in 2013 — and probably even more of a West Coast offense style, now that the Michigan coaches have two full classes of players recruited to fit the offense they want.

“It’s important to understand, it’s less a hybrid than it was, I’ll say that, but it’s still not ‘line up in the I-formation, hit them in the mouth’ every play, either,” Borges said last Wednesday. “We’re going to be in multiple formations, with multiple shifts, and multiple motions and a variety of different ways to get the ball to the tailbacks, maybe some to the fullback, at times a quarterback (run).”

The offensive coordinator especially emphasized the dynamism of his system, given the fears some Wolverine fans have of a return to ultra-conservative football.

Hoke has helped spark those concerns with his continual rhetoric about building his teams in the trenches and establishing a dominant running game. Such talk conjures images of dull offenses of decades past, like the one Michigan became famous for under former coach Bo Schembechler.

Borges refuted the notion that the Wolverines’ past philosophy of “three yards and a cloud of dust” would also be their future one, as long as he’s in Ann Arbor.

“That’s never been my style as an offensive coordinator,” he said.

Entering their third season in charge of the program, Hoke and his staff have been able to significantly overturn the roster and help mold it into their desired image. The recently signed class of 2013 demonstrates this well.

Michigan signed what several recruiting sites rated as the best class of offensive linemen in the country, boasting six tough players with the versatility to play multiple positions along the line — just the type of lineman that position coach Darrell Funk said he prefers.

At running back, the Wolverines signed three big, physical athletes, all of whom are listed at 218 pounds or greater. The team also added a pocket passer in Shane Morris and two tight ends that fit well into Borges’s roles for the position.

The only spot of potential concern in the class is wide receiver, the lowest-rated position in Michigan’s class. The coaches signed three receivers — Jaron Dukes from Ohio and a pair of in-staters in Da’Mario Jones and Csont’e York — but most analysts regarded each as a three-star recruit.

It’s clear the coaches value size at receiver — each recruit checks in at 6-foot-2 or taller — but speed is a question. Wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski downplayed that aspect of the position, saying that “speed is overrated” and that it’s difficult to even determine a recruit’s speed since he likely rarely touches the ball in high school.

“If you can’t catch, we have issues,” Hecklinski said. “All of our guys, if you watch them on high-school film, they have great hands, they adjust to the ball, they track the ball very well in the air and they go up and they catch it.

“We can judge that on film, so let’s get the best hand-eye coordination guys, guys that can catch the football, let’s bring them in here and let’s develop them in other areas.”

Though the coaches assembled an extremely talented offensive class, it wasn’t necessarily easy. Borges and his cohorts had to convince recruits that they’d be playing in a system they wanted to play in, which wasn’t necessarily the spread-hybrid they saw Michigan run for the last two seasons.

“It is hard,” Borges said. “Sometimes you have to go back and show them stuff you’ve done in the past (at other schools) because they got to see what you’re getting to. … But we showed them, and they understood, they know what direction we want to go in, and that’s why they decided to come here.”

With the 2013 class in tow and Borges closer than ever to his desired offense, it appears the days of the coach needing to dig into the film archive for recruiting visits will soon be over.

BIG TEN ROUNDUP: Ohio State announced Tuesday that former coach Woody Hayes didn’t allow a turtle to bite his private parts. The program’s sports information department said that a story that coach Urban Meyer told that alluded to such an incident was exaggerated.