A more stubborn man wouldn’t have been as successful in coaching his team to the Sugar Bowl. He would’ve strained, trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Certainly, a more stubborn man wouldn’t have designed the nation’s 22nd-ranked scoring offense and exceeded every astronomical expectation left by his predecessor.
But, “(Al Borges) doesn’t have an ego,” says Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “He doesn’t care.”
Never before had the Michigan offensive coordinator adjusted this much of his offense to cater to his personnel. But that’s what he and Hoke promised when they took over the offense in January. He called friends of his who knew the spread offense.
In his words, he closed his mouth and opened his mind.
“Our ego’s on the shelf,” Borges said.
Tuesday, he addressed the media as the coach who’s on his way to converting junior Denard Robinson into a pro-style quarterback and who made Wolverine fans forget all about Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense. Borges’ ground attack finished 11th in Division I, while Robinson showed signs of improvement, despite leading the nation’s 90th-ranked passing attack.
“It’s always a work in progress in the first year, but we’re further — much further now than we were when we started,” Borges said.
It took no more than one conversation with himself to determine his new quarterback, Robinson, was nothing like Ryan Lindley, his quarterback at San Diego State.
“I see really no similarities, OK?” Borges said, pretending to talk to himself. “Very few, if any. He’s not (Lindley) — OK.
“So if he’s not, what do we have to do to accommodate those skills, yet not completely bastardize what we want to do with our offense? And that’s a delicate balance.”
Every offensive player was evaluated, not just Robinson. The majority also were picked and groomed for the spread. So Borges adjusted.
The result was a “quasi” or “makeshift” offense, as Hoke calls it, which featured, at times, Robinson in the shotgun, running the read-option running game, but also called for Robinson to go under center and run the ball out of power-I formations. Robinson showed growth and redshirt sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint emerged as a legitimate No. 2 threat.
But it wasn’t until the Illinois game — with only the Nebraska and Ohio State games remaining — that Borges saw Robinson start to catch on.
“He’s doing pretty much what every quarterback I’ve had in the first year has done,” Borges said. “He started a little slow. Again, I said this before, is our passing game is so different from what they’ve done.
“He’s starting to absorb the concepts and be able to understand what we want, and it’s showing up at the end more than it did earlier. … There were some real signs of understanding of what we want to do.”
On the ground, Borges successfully lessened Robinson’s load. The quarterback carried the ball 208 times this season — 17 times per game — down from the 258 times he ran it in 2010.
As a passer, Robinson is more comfortable going through progressions, but Borges wants him to focus on his fundamentals and understanding route timing and combinations as he prepares for the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3. Poor timing in the passing game is what’s hurt most by late bowl games, Borges said.
Now, with more than a month between games, Borges has plenty of time to determine what exactly needs tweaking — for Robinson and the entire offense.
For instance, the two-quarterback system, named “deuce,” that features both Robinson and backup sophomore quarterback Devin Gardner could reappear in New Orleans, despite taking a hiatus in the second half of Michigan’s season. Borges admitted the formation yields its share of low-reward plays, but he noted that Michigan averages more than eight yards per play out of the package.
On the whole — despite little victories like featuring two 1,000-yard rushers in Robinson and Toussaint or Robinson’s 67-percent completion rate in his last three games — Borges is still not completely pleased with where the offense is at.
“We’re still a ways off,” he warned. “We have a long way to go now.”
With another offseason, Borges expects Robinson to have a greater grasp of those “nuances” he’s starting to understand within the offense.
But Hoke admitted Thursday he felt the offense wouldn’t be shifting back to the pro-style scheme Borges is accustomed to. Instead, one could assume Hoke plans to go forward with the current hybrid-looking attack.
“It won’t (change) for at least another year,” said Hoke, whose dynamic quarterback enters his senior year in 2012.
Borges’s ego may stay on the shelf until 2013.