Film Study: What We Can Learn from Al Borges and Developing Offensive Lines

By Kyle Jones on April 24, 2014 at 3:00p

While many of the 11W faithful are well aware of the struggles that plagued That Team Up North, no on-field issue may have been more publicized than the play of the Wolverines’ offensive line in 2013. While finishing the season 7-6, Brady Hoke’s squad featured 5 different starting lineups in those 13 games, with only two mainstays in tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. To fill the gaps inside, Hoke turned to a collection of highly touted underclassmen, including former blue-chip recruits such as Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson, and Kyle Bosch.

After finishing the season ranked 115th in the nation in yards per rushing attempt, Hoke made drastic changes to his coaching staff in preparation for the upcoming 2014 campaign. However, with the loss of Lewan and Schofield to the NFL, there is still a great deal of concern up north about this unit’s ability to improve moving forward.

Conversely, Ohio State featured one of the program’s finest offensive lines of all time in 2013, finishing fifth in the nation in rushing yards, and tops among all teams in FBS in yards per carry. The gap between the two units was so wide, that the Buckeyes averaged over twice as many yards every time they ran the football (6.8) as the Wolverines (3.28). Yet with the departure of 4 senior linemen, some fans in Columbus have begun to worry that the young men in Scarlet and Gray may endure struggles similar to that of their rivals.

The common response to those fans (on the internet, at least) has often been along the lines of “Trust Coach [insert Meyer, Herman, or Warriner],” and at the risk of sounding like a common fan, I agree for the most part. The offense that has been established since the arrival of this coaching staff is nearly the polar opposite of the one that former play-caller Al Borges ran the past three years in Ann Arbor. Borges’ offense more resembled the 2013 Buckeye Defense in a philosophical sense, lacking a clear identity and often struggling to consistently execute the plays that were called (which we’ve discussed at great lengths).

When reviewing the film of last year’s gang from Ann Arbor, the absolute first thing that stands out is the massive amount of formations. I truly feel bad for the opposing grad assistants and video coordinators that had to chart all the different combinations of personnel and alignment while scouting the Maize and Blue.

I will refrain from breaking down each and every formation they ran, to save us all time (but mostly my sanity), but an example can be found in the opening drive of the Michigan State game:

MSU opening drive

On this eight-play drive, Borges called eight different formations, featuring a mix of one-back, I-formation, shotgun, double TE, and 4-WR looks. Having called plays since 1986, Borges has likely seen every personnel combination imaginable. Unfortunately, he was coaching 18-22 year olds that have only seen a fraction of what he has on the football field.

Granted, offensive linemen rarely ever line up in different spots, so the alignment of the backs and receivers shouldn’t be an issue for them. However, the NCAA only allows a limited amount of time each week for teams to practice together, and the first step to running a play is lining up. Add in the consistent lineup changes, and it’s no wonder that the Wolverine offensive line often looked like they were running plays in a game for the first time.

I must admit, the number of concepts that Borges, Gardner, and co. tried to execute last fall was actually quite impressive. The Maize and Blue dipped into every trend seen in major college football over the past decade, ranging from empty backfield sets with Air Raid passing concepts, to option runs from the pistol, and Jumbo sets with multiple TEs and overloaded linemen to run the ball. Heck, they ran at least 4 different versions of the throwback screen alone, by my count.

Chip Kelly spoke about this very subject in 2009, as his Oregon offense was taking the college football world by storm:

"If you give your players something to hang their hats on, they will perform. If they can run the offense with any scenario they may face, you will be successful in running the ball. If they have all the answers to the problems the defense may give them, they will be good.

"The best way to beat the team you are going to play is to have your team play with conviction. Are there any basketball coaches in here? The one thing I cannot understand about their sport occurs in the clutch stages of the game. With the game tied and five seconds left in the game, the coach calls a time-out. He picks up a whiteboard and draws a play. I do not know how long I would last in Eugene, Oregon if I did that.

"If your players have not run that play in a critical situation over a thousand times in practice, you will not have a chance to be successful. With our inside zone play, we get so much practice time and so many reps that we can handle all the other scenarios that come about. Instead of trying to outscheme your opponent, put your players in an environment where they can be successful because they understand exactly what they have to do."

This series against Nebraska was a perfect example of the grab-bag approach to offense that Michigan often relied upon:


  • First Down: As the defense sat back and tried to read yet another formation and motion, an End-Around designed to get the ball to playmakers Devin Funchess netted 5 yards: 
    Funchess end around
  • Second Down: Inside lead zone from the I formation, a formation from which the Wolverines rarely ever threw the ball. The Nebraska defense immediately crashed down in run support, creating more defenders than Wolverines to block them, and the middle linebacker darts into the backfield untouched to make an easy tackle: 
    I formation stuffed
  • Third Down: Now in an obvious passing situation, the Cornhuskers bring the blitz. With only two down linemen, the defense was obviously trying to confuse a young defense that they had been attacking all game.  Brady Hoke’s crew had enough bodies to account for all the blitzing defenders, but the delayed blitz was poorly picked up by running back Fitzgerald Touissant (a consistent issue for the Maize and Blue in 2013). The blitzing middle linebacker pressured Gardner enough to force a rushed throw with little chance of completion: 
    Nebraska 3rd down blitz

On the surface, the series appeared to be a “woulda-shoulda-coulda” scenario for fans of the Wolverines, just missing out on a first down. But the literal gains from the first play wouldn’t lead to much more, both on that series, and later in the game. The formation from which the Funchess run appeared didn’t return for the rest of the game, with the end-around acting as a constraint play to open up the handoff inside that was initially faked.

Quarterback Devin Gardner and crew were somewhat effective on first and second down, using their plethora of formations and concepts to keep defenses off balance. But on third downs, without the threat of even a minimal running game, defenses attacked the Maize and Blue offensive line with an array of blitzes, and stunts.

While I’m sure the readers of 11W would love a weekly series simply highlighting poor play in Ann Arbor, there are takeaways that can hopefully be applied to the development of the young offensive linemen in Columbus.

The first, and most important of which, goes back to the quote from Chip Kelly,

"With our inside zone play, we get so much practice time and so many reps that we can handle all the other scenarios that come about. Instead of trying to outscheme your opponent, put your players in an environment where they can be successful because they understand exactly what they have to do."

One of the questions that I posed in advance of the Spring Game was if the offense would begin to work in more schemes, such as outside zone. While the Buckeye offenses seemed more focused on developing the passing game during that game, it was clear that the Inside Zone play is still the foundation upon which the entire offense is built.

Much as was shown in the comeback in Evanston versus Northwestern last October, the goal of the Buckeye offense under Meyer, Herman, and Warinner is to keep the defense from committing to the inside zone run by forcing them to respect the pass.


By not only running deep, play-action passes that appear at first like inside zone, but also by packaging the run play with a quick pass, the defense has no choice but to play on their heels.

OSU packaged play

This is not to say that the inside zone is the perfect football play, and that all Hoke and new OC Doug Nussmeier need do is run that concept all the way to a championship. However, IF a team is going to commit to that, or any scheme, nothing can replace the value of a line running it over and over, together.

Unlike the game of chess, both sides are moving at once on a football field, meaning all the arrows drawn above are subject to change through the course of a second. Being prepared to adjust as needed, and more importantly, know how the guy next to you will adjust, is paramount to the success of an offensive line.

As we head into the 2014 season, the key to the success of the Buckeye offense is not only identifying the 5 best offensive linemen on the team, but ensuring they’ve spent enough time to build trust in each other’s ability. Otherwise, as many of our friends in Ann Arbor can attest, Autumn Saturdays may become a very trying time for all of us.


Comments Show All Comments

703Buckeye's picture

Two main things I noticed about Michigan...

1. Lewan was their only good lineman.

2. Their blitz pickup sucks.

"Attack the Strong, Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead!"
-Former OSU S&C Coach Lichter

+2 HS
IGotAWoody's picture

1. Yep.

2. Word.

“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” ~Carl Rogers

+1 HS
FitzBuck's picture

Did you notice 6 of the 8 images of michigan formations had a TE lined up next to Lewan....with a right handed QB....what the hell is that TE doing next to Lewan 75 % of the time?  Does he need help?


Fitzbuck | Toledo - Ohio's right armpit | "A troll by any other name is still a troll".

+4 HS
M Man's picture

I don't know why anyone would downvote FitzBuck for this; the comment is spot on.  None of us could figure it out; why Borges would park a TE over Lewan, with the caveat that no, Lewan didn't need help.  Which makes the FitzBuck point all the more poignant.  +1.

+3 HS
M Man's picture

That's a very solid analysis, Kyle.

Having read all of it, I now need more medication.

Minor correction; Patrick Kugler didn't play in 2013.  His redshirt was saved.  I seriously wondered if he would play, when things got terrible.  At that point, probably nobody felt that Kugler could be a difference-maker.  I hope he's good in '14.  Line play in the spring game was a clusterfuck.

+3 HS
Kyle Jones's picture

Appreciate the heads up, I will remove his name. I know he was one of the bigger names they brought in over the past couple years on the OL

buckeyeblur5's picture

I don't agree with your argument that Michigan ran too many formations last season.  Formations are cheaper to add than plays in terms of time spent to learn.  Also, all of the college offensive coordinators that I have been around script their first 10-12 plays to make sure that they show all of the formations they intend to use for that game.  They do this so they can see how the defense is aligning to each of their formations in order to determine what formations are most advantageous to use going forward in the game.  In fact, Michigan State used more than 8 different formations on their opening drive vs. our Buckeyes in the BTen title game.  Were they overloading their players too?

Michigan's offense was bad last season, there is no doubt.  However, I do not believe that too many formations/schemes were the issue.   

+2 HS
Denster's picture

Maybe missing the point? Not formations alone. It's all about the idea of bread & butter and constraint plays. i.e. get YOUR inside zone play. The play that nets 3 yards even though everyone in the stadium knows it's coming, and then constrain it. Michigan was all over the board last year. Wtf DID they do well? Align themselves? 

This reminds me of the Tressel / Pryor years. Did we ever do anything to constrain dave? How many times did the backside defensive end crash the living shit out of that play when all we had to do was run a little bootleg off of it w/ TP every now and again?

"It's a double-barreled pistol that fires hard work and victory..."

+2 HS
Kyle Jones's picture

Yeah, formations alone aren't the problem, but only showing one concept from a formation is doing yourself a disservice. The lack of identity from the Wolverines had nothing to do with where exactly the tight ends lined up, but more the fact that they did a poor job of keeping any kind of balance in the play-calling. When they got in the I, Nebraska knew exactly how to react to it. When they ran a reverse, they never ran the inside handoff, etc...

I wanted to avoid bringing up the Bollman era, as not to turn this into a hate-fest, but the issues we saw from OSU in 2011 were very similar. 

osu407's picture

It amazes me that they had so many different formations and concepts but only one goal line two point conversion play allowing us to know exactly what was coming when it mattered most. 

+2 HS
kholmes's picture

Exactly. The real kick in the teeth was when Michigan used a trick play on a 2 point conversion in the next game (bowl game vs Kansas St) that involved Jeremy Gallon throwing a pass to Justice Hayes for the conversion. That successful trick 2 point conversion reduced the K State lead to 31-14 with 1 minute left in the game so was a completely meaningless play. Hmm..wonder if there might have been a better time for them to try an innovative conversion play like that?

+4 HS
rufio's picture

That actually might be one reason that we knew it was coming. If you have a bazillion formations and motions, you can't practice enough plays to run more than a handful for each formation.

If you can fit 40 plays into the playbook (that you actually practice) and you have 4 formations, you could be running one of 10 plays when you line up a certain way. If you have 15 formations--which doesn't seem like a stretch considering *ichigan's opening drive above--you can really only run 2-3 plays per formation.

Then the defense can see your formation and know what you're running. Like Kyle pointed out above; I formation = run. That gives a smart and prepared defense a huge advantage.

+1 HS
Killer nuts's picture

Moral of the story: Don't be like M*ichigan. Ever

+2 HS
kholmes's picture

Great work. Your points do seem to be in line with one of the main themes coming out of Ann Arbor this spring..simpler offense with an emphasis on simpler blocking schemes. It has been interesting to see the large number of articles recently by other non-Michigan writers criticizing aspects of offense/playcalling by Borges. Of course Michigan will blame the coach that is no longer there but the fact that non-Michigan fans have written so much about Borges gives the hope that his offense/playcalling really was one of the things that held them back last year. 

+3 HS
alust2013's picture

That is my main concern with the O-line starting battle. They should set it as soon as possible to get the guys to form a unit. All I've ever heard is that consistency is key with the offensive line.

...and Michigan still sucks.

CaliforniaBuckeye's picture

Have to admit, as much as I disliked Lewan... he was one hell of a lineman

"The only way we'd get beaten was if we got a little fat-headed, if we didn't train right, if we had dissension on the squad." - Woody Hayes

+1 HS
bigDbuck's picture

Thank you Kyle. Great, great read! Watching that O recap vs NW really illuminates how much we will miss Hyde this year. True beast. Also how I'm a little worried if Brax has to carry us with his arm alone. Accuracy really lacking in that game. But every year matters when your that young, and Brax hasn't reached his ceiling. 

+1 HS
Colerain 2004 G.O.A.T.'s picture

Hmmm Borges offenses seemed to do fine in the outhouse but were totally overwhelmed on the road. Can anyone point to a legitimate reason for this? I honestly think maybe Gardner crumbles under the pressure a little more then normal and Borges knew it so maybe called games a little different on the road.

I speak the truth but I guess that's a foreign language to yall.~~Lil Wayne

kholmes's picture

By the end of the year, most games both home and away were awful. The 175 yards of total offense at HOME in a 17-13 loss to Nebraska near end of year was particularly awful and was highlighted by -21 yards of rushing (due to sacks). Basically home and away were both awful near the end of the year with the exception of the OSU game at home. 

Colerain 2004 G.O.A.T.'s picture

That was one home game. You guys had no problems against us or Minn or Indy or ND. You guys had what one good offensive game away from home and one bad game at home. Its seems to be a habit under Hoke and was wondering if anyone could point to anything specific. Really was curious to see if folks are going to try to blame Borges for *ichigans away struggles during the Hoke era.

I speak the truth but I guess that's a foreign language to yall.~~Lil Wayne

PoKeY21's picture

Is Kalis doing any work up scUM?

"It was a woman who drove me to drink, come to think of it I never did hang around to thank her for that"

Kyle Jones's picture

He was part of the revolving door at guard last year, and in what I saw he had a few games where he looked overwhelmed, and others where he looked fine. That was kind of the point, though. There was no one on that offense that you could easily circle and say, "that guy is the problem."

Outside of Lewan, Schofield, and Gallon, everyone on that unit made their fair share of mistakes, while also making big plays. The total lack of consistency in execution was what makes me place the majority of blame on the coaching and play-calling.

Back to the original question though, Kalis didn't look quite as athletic or comfortable when pulling as you'd like to see from a guard, but he'll probably end up a 3 year starter up there. That's pretty impressive no matter how you look at it.

PoKeY21's picture

Thank you for the quick and thorough reply. Always good to keep an eye on Ohio kids at scUM, they have been known to bite us in the ass.  Looks like with Borges out it falls onto the Funk/Hoke combo. It will be their 4th year so it's all on them now.

"It was a woman who drove me to drink, come to think of it I never did hang around to thank her for that"

M Man's picture

Kyle is exactly right about Kalis.  I could not have written it any better.  

buckguyfan1's picture

Coach Johnson:  "Send in the Destroyers!"

chirobuck's picture

Watching that Nebraska game just made me more mad remembering how they pretty much scored at will against us, I do think we will see a very different defense this year though


^ best post ever ^

+1 HS
Soggy_McMuffin's picture

My thoughts exactly Buckguyfan1!!


buckskin's picture

The Michigan offense is having trouble finding an identity; much like Jason Bourne.  In regards to formations, jack of all trades, master of none.

+1 HS
THEOSUfan's picture

Talent, experience, technique, scheme, or intangibles affect the performance of a unit.

I think the scheme part has been fleshed out pretty well.  Definitely could have been a factor - probably was some part of the scUM dysfunction.

I don't think talent is the issue.  Their guys were pretty highly thought of as recruits.  Kalis, in particular, was a player Urban went after. Experience comes with practice and games.  They were as experienced as they were going to get by the bowl game, and it didn't seem to matter.  Technique is coaching, and while I like to think of TTUN as a bunch of idiots, I have to assume that they have coaches who are competent in teaching the right way to do things in detail.

I think a big part of scUM's problem on the OL was intangibles, and I suspect it was a lack of player leadership.  They trotted Lewan out there for the press after every game with his bleeding forhead - obviously presenting him as a team/OL leader.  I have occasionally liked the personality of a player of theirs, but this guy was not one of them.  I viewed him as an arrogant, ahole.  You like guys who stick up for teammates, but when they do it by threatening their roommate's sexual abuse victim, they are descending to whatever is worse than being an ahole.  In short, I think he was their leader, and I think the other guys on that line hated his guts.  I would have.


BeijingBucks's picture

yeah well, until proven otherwise Michigan is still a shadow of its former self.  I hate it.  I can't even make fun of my Michigan friends anymore... it's become pity instead.  pity!  our rival!!

dammit stand up straight so I can knock you down again.


None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

M Man's picture

I'm wondering if you even saw the 2013 game.  Where we were one conversion away from beating The Ohio State University.  It would have made for a great new saying for the 21st Century:  Because we only had to go for two.