Michigan Game Day Intel: Al Borges

GBW's Sam Webb fires an extensive number of questions at the Wolverines' offensive coordinator.

Sam Webb: Let's just start off first and foremost talking about the running game. A couple of weeks in a row you guys really haven't been able to muster the kind of running game that you want. Were there similarities between the way Nebraska attacked you guys and the way Michigan State attacked you? And I ask you that because if that was a copy-cat type deal, do you anticipate other teams trying to do the same thing to you?

Al Borges: I think it goes back even further than that to a degree. But yeah, they've been similar approaches. They have not been the same approach. But I think what people are doing is early downs giving us a lot of pressure, try to take gaps away in the run game, and harass our play action n passes. Because they know that we like the play action pass on early downs and we like to run on early downs. What it comes down to is the reality of dealing with pressure defenses is making the feel the sting of pressure. Knowing that there's going to be a lot of times they're going to be some ugly plays in the game that you have to make up for with some bites out of the defense. That's what we've been really incapable of doing is when they pressure and we pick them up we've had some trouble holding the blocks long enough to get the ball down the field with the passing game. And I think by the same token is in the run game, is holding the blocks long enough to crease the defense. That's how pressure defenses stop pressuring. In all my experience that's been it. But the more you're incapable of doing that, the more pressure you're going to get. So we have to just continue to up the ante with our practice and continue to show those looks to our younger players because pressure defense tends to exploit younger players than they do more experienced players. Most of the teams I coached with a good experienced offensive line and backs that really understand your system aren't bothered by blitzing type defenses. So what we've got to do is continue to show them those scenarios; get them more seasoned so they understand how to deal with them.

Sam Webb: Obviously you guys are heavy play-action. I'm curious. When your running game isn't working like it hasn't the past couple weeks especially, and you get into second and third and long situations, is play action in those situations, and I don't know if you charted it, does it have the same impact?

Al Borges: No, it doesn't have the same impact. And how much of that you want to do has got to be limited too. So you've got to be careful about how much you do. And not establishing your run game; by the same token, you never want to give up on the concept either because that's how we've been. We've been good. That's how we've been good. So, we have to incorporate more quick throws, not necessarily play action pass, which we all have in our offense and we've used. And we still use. And we've used several in the last couple of games. But we have to be efficient in throwing and catching those and making sure we pick up the right guys and keep our quarterback from getting knocked down. All those things are part of it. So, understanding what we're seeing, trying to adjust to what they're seeing, but more than anything [is] understanding who to block, how to block them, and how quickly the ball has got to be released.

Sam Webb: You guys as coordinators, there's often a dilemma between play complexity and simplicity; being complex enough to keep defense off balance and simple enough to allow your guys to go out and perform. I imagine that's exacerbated when you have young guys; the battle between complexity and simplicity. Do you guys do too much offensively with where you are now with how many young guys you play? Is trying to simplify, is that a goal right now?

Al Borges: Oh, there's no question. When you're not playing well, you have to rein it in whether you like it or not. You have to rein it in a little bit and hone in on some schemes that you think you can execute. And we've done that. We did that last week and we did that even the week before that. We were, believe it or not, the last two games, particularly the last game; we had less offense in our game plan than we ever had. But really at the end of the day, it's really not about that. It's executing what you do have. That's the key thing is trying to make it so that your kids can play fast. And if you can get that and you can get them to understand where they're playing without reservation; playing without [saying], "Okay, I've got to think about this, I've got to think about that", and then really setting yourself up for an error. When you can get them confident. Talented kids that are confident, you've got what you want. But we're still struggling to get that on a consistent basis.

Sam Webb: So, at this stage, obviously you're working on confidence, you're working on execution and you're working to try to pare things down. At the same time, you have some issues that are long standing like when you talk about over the past few games. I didn't put the stats together so I'm repeating it based on the things sent to me. But holding on to the football longer pre-throw in the past three games compared to the first five games. I don't know if you guys chart that but it's a tangible difference. Can you pinpoint why the ball might be being held on too longer?

Al Borges: Well, some of our throws are down the field. And another thing is we have a play making quarterback. When you have a playmaking quarterback, sometimes he tries to do more than he should do. The players that are less that way tend to release the ball faster. So, you've got to find that delicate balance. I've been saying it from the beginning. There's times to make a play [and] there's times to cut your losses. And when you're not playing as well, the quarterback sometimes feels the pressure of that and does some things that after the fact he wishes he wouldn't have done. But the bottom line is we have to protect him better on any down, whether it's third down or first down, so that he feels good about the rhythm of every throw [and] he doesn't have to worry about holding on to the ball too long.

Sam Webb: So that's kind of a build up to where I was going; talking about getting rid of the ball quicker. You talked about doing the things from a play-call standpoint. To try to do that. So, is that a matter of emphasizing things that you guys already have on the books? Is it s matter of adding things to your play action elements that you already have? How do you achieve that?

Al Borges: We already have all that within our offense. It's all a matter of what you want to pick to make it work. So, we don't need to invent any new plays. We can always come up with a little something but we have all the quick throws, we have all the intermediate throws [and] we have all the deep throws.

Sam Webb: It's just a matter of what you emphasize.

Al Borges: What you emphasize, yeah, exactly. [It is} how you decide you want to plan it. When you're facing a team that's playing press, they're not going to give you a lot of quick throws. Those quick throws are going to be fades and with fades comes feast of famine in a lot of long down and distance situations. When you play a team that's softer; that plays more retreat coverage, they'll give you the opportunity to peck at them a little bit more. Those quick throws are a lot easier to make. The last two weeks we have played press coverage teams that have been up pressing our wide receivers making quick throws more difficult. That doesn't mean that you don't run any quick throws. But to think you're going to run the whole game releasing balls on three step drops, you're going to have a lot of incompletions and be in a lot of long down and distance situations. We were anyway. But by the same token, even with that ting you've got to understand that if they're going to play that way, where are they weak. And that's where you have to go after them.

Sam Webb: We've seen a few things you guys had; a few successful screens last week. Crossing routes; a lot of teams try to do some crossing patterns. We were talking to it might have been Marcus Ray and his analysis of the game. [He talked] about the shallow crosses that you do. I know you have the screen game in there some. Are those elements that you emphasize; crossing routes, screens?

Al Borges: Oh yeah. [That is] all good stuff, but understand crossing routes force the quarterback to hold on to the ball longer. So in one sense you're talking about one problem and then dealing with the problem you just dealt with by schematically changing how you attack the defense. So, you can't throw a crossing route fast so you have to block them. But if we hit a couple crossing routes in a game [it is] because we blocked them. If we can't do crossing routes in the game it's because we didn't. So, yeah, on the board all that looks good but nothing, Sam, nothing looks good if you don't protect. Nothing looks good unless you block in the run game. And at times we've shown we really can do that. But at times we've show we can't. That's the inconsistency of that is what's forced us into such long down and distances and put us behind the eight ball in terms of trying to play against the chains.

Sam Webb: Where are you philosophically as far as audibling is concerned? Is that a situational thing based on quarterback to quarterback or offense to offense? And more specifically with your team, do you have run-pass checks or are they all run-run checks?

Al Borges: Oh yeah. We have run-pass checks within our offense. We have pass-run checks within our offense. We have every way to anything and we use it. And we used it several times in the last game. So that's always available. The one thing you want to do and what you don't want to do it get into too much of a chess game at the line of scrimmage because the defensive coordinator can confuse the quarterback. But by the same token, you want to give him the opportunity to take them out of a bad play and get into a good play. So again, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Not too much of any one thing is a good approach.

Sam Webb: Al, you talked about the other day this really is kind of like year one of the transition process as opposed to year three. So as far as your blocking is concerned, or scheme, what you do at the line of scrimmage; is it all different this year compared to year one?

Al Borges: We've been an 85 percent spread team for two years until Devon [Gardener] made the transition. And we even kept a little bit of that then. We are now transitioning into a more power offense team. We're trying to become a home position running team. We're not very good at it. It's because we're not equipped yet to do that. I mean we could keep running spread offense but that's not our future. That's not what we want to be. And we still have implemented some concepts of the spread just to help us some but we have a direction we want to go and that's the direction we're going to go. I think we can retard that process if we continue to do what we've done in the past but we don't want to do that. We want to be what we want to be. We want to we think are going to win championships here. And we believe running the football with a good aggressive running game, play action game, an effective third down percentage; those types of things. Those are the things that these teams that are winning big are doing. All you've got to do is look at them. Michigan can be all that. Are we there yet? Obviously not. But we'll never get there if we keep continuing to retard the process in developing our offense. What we did when we came here was we adjusted to the quarterback as best as we could adjust to a quarterback. And that was smart because it helped us win games. But at this point now when you're the third year in, you've got to start thinking about what do we want to be and knowing that they're aches and pains that goes with that. But this is what our future is. This is what we're going to be and before it's all said and done I think everything is going to work out just fine.

Sam Webb: I guess that's what I kind of wanted you to expound upon because from a novice perspective, trying to get a feel for if you can have a variation or a change in the short term that is separate from your long term vision. Is that possible of do the two things go hand-in-hand? If you were to do something short term like, "Hey, you know what? We're going to spread them out more right now". That limits what you do down the line or can you have it both ways. Can you say, "You know what? Last three games, we might do something that has nothing to do with what we're going to do long term".

Al Borges: Well, we've done that. We've implemented quite a bit of spread concepts and I think we'll always have some of that. But is it what we really want to be? No, it's not what we really want to be. And the more of that you do the less you get to what you really want to be. And we've done two years of that. We've run schematics that have not really been the direction to what we want to be. So to continue to do that in the short term will help you but like I said, we tried to build that into some of our stuff because we feel like its necessary at times. But to completely abandon our direction now would be ridiculous. That would not be good. That would just put another, "Okay, we're going to do it next year". Oh, so I had a couple bad games so let's go back and run spread. That is a recipe for disaster. So it may sound a little stubborn, it may sound a little stupid at times, but the bottom line is we have to build something here even if it means some growing pains along the way, that's the way it's got to be.

Sam Webb: Got you. Now you're running backs; Brady [Hoke] talked about it, Fred [Jackson] talked about it; the blocking from [the] tailback position is something that you guys have strived all season to improve. And yet the young guys, because they're young, haven't been able to go in there and really been able to go in there and really give you anything in that aspect of the game. I'm curious [about] the complexity there. Is that something you can simplify for a young guy or is that kind of just is what it is?

Al Borges: That's just kind of what it is. If I could get the defense to simplify then I think you could do that. (Laughter) But there's so many intricacies to pass protection particularly when you see the sophisticated and the exotic blitzes that you see now. You put a young player really behind the eight ball. If you stick him in there, you set him up to fail. So you've got to make sure that part of it…you're constantly training them. You have a guy in there that eventually can do it but none of the backs we have now when we first got here knew how to pick blitzes up. Well now since they've been developed, they actually know how to target the front. So as guy learn we'll get them more and more in there. But young kids and pass protection, I'll tell you this, it's the slowest thing in the NFL for a college back for them to come in and learn because the one thing you want to do is do your best so at least you have the body on the body. If the body gets beat, well that's another thing. But you turn people loose for blindside shots on your quarterback or coming through the middle of the defense untouched, that's not good.

Sam Webb: Alright. So let's move on and talk about this week. First of all, [this] week of practice. How do you feel like the guys were this week of practice compared to last week? For instance, Ray said last week was a really good week of practice.

Al Borges: I thought it was too. Yesterday was the best practice we've had in a couple weeks. We shortened it a little bit and the kids were fired up and I think it was a really good deal. We had great enthusiasm and we got through all our stuff in with real good tempo. And game plan-wise, I think the kids have a great fell for what we want to do. So, I think it's been good. I think the kids have been resilient. And at this point it's tough when you've lost two games and you've played as poorly as we played. I mean after playing as good as you can play it's amazing the mindset. You've got to kind of rekindle; sometimes you've got to give yourself a little pep talk, "Okay, we're capable of this thing". We know one thing. If we don't practice well, Sam, we usually don't play very well. And because you practice well doesn't mean you're going to play well but if we don't practice well, we generally don't play well. But this week, I think, has been really good.

Sam Webb: Alright. So Northwestern; you're going on the road. Obviously it's always going to be tough playing in someone else's arena. At the same time, there are teams that do well at picking teams off and that kind of thing. Talk to me about what you've seen from them defensively.

Al Borges: They're a little bit in our situation. They haven't had a lot of success recently but they are very dangerous. Mike Hankwitz, the defensive coordinator, is really good football coach. I've coached against him several times at other places. And they run a very sound scheme and there kids play extremely hard. They'll do their best not to every put themselves out of position. So they're going to make you earn it all. They did it with us last year. I watched last year's game a couple times already and they make you run plays to beat them. They're not a press team. They're not like the teams we've seen the last couple weeks but they're every bit as sound.

Sam Webb: And last but certainly no least, as far as personnel is concerned, Brady made the comment. He said, "You know, we've changed guys at different positions. We've changed guys along the offensive line. [We have] put different guys in there". At some point, because we've had a lot of questions about do you make more offensive line changes? At some point, do you just stay with guys that you have to get some continuity, to get some chemistry or you keep changing things around until you get a group that you think is going to be able to do it?

Al Borges: You could keep changing that position forever and all you're going to do is suffer growing pains with new players. This is the longest I can remember shuffling players into the season at one position and that being the offensive line. But if you don't let those kids get ingrained in the position and at least have a chance to acquire some chemistry; you can change the player [but] you'll turn around and have the same problems next week all over again. You may anyway, you know. But at least you give those players a chance to work together a little bit so they can grow.

Sam Webb: I'm just throwing questions at you that we get. Another player they asked about is Dennis Norfleet. Is this going to be one of those things with Fleet he's a guy that it's more about teaching him the position for next year? Is he still in line to get more and more snaps this season?

Al Borges: Well, he's a work in progress because we moved him to slot and I think he's going to be pretty good at that position. But how much he plays, when he plays, we make no promises to any of that. But I think in time this kid is going to be a really good player. But it is completely new to him.

Sam Webb: And then the young tailbacks. Brady said we're going to see more Derrick Green [but] Fitz is still the guy. What about Deveon?

Al Borges: Well again, it's all kind of how the flow of the game goes. We always have good intensions. "Well we'll play this guy this many snaps, we'll play that guy that many snaps. We hope to get this guy this many carries". But as the games goes, if you're rolling all of that stuff works nicely. If it's a closer game where you're concerned about protection, you're concerned about something here, something there; you're less likely to put a young player in the game. So it's hard to commit and say, "Okay, we're going to make sure this guy get 'X' amount of carries" because you don't know how the flow of the game is going to go.

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