Saturday, November 16, 2013

Mailbag: Offensive line and Al Borges

Thunder, As a regular reader of "Touch the Banner," I want to thank you for the continued great effort/product you deliver . . . and today, ask you some questions about the continuing poor performance of the offensive line. 
1. Too often seems to be confusion about blocking assignments, true? 
2. While I appreciate the long readiness curve for offensive lineman (both mentally and physically), shouldn't U-M be able to get by reasonably well with two senior tackles (including an All-American) and some highly touted (albeit young) recruits? The guys who are in their 2nd year should be further along, right? 
3. For young lineman, isn't it easier blocking out/forward than side-to-side? Seems that prevailing offensive philosophy promotes these lineman being on their heals more than being aggressive - is this accurate? 
4. Personally, Borges just doesn't seem to be getting the results . . . and he is responsible for COORDINATING, not just sitting in a box calling plays. He doesn't seem up to the job. Your thoughts? Thanks for any insight you can provide. 
Go Blue! 
 1. Yes, the problems up front are more about mental mistakes than physical ones. Even with the young guys in place, Michigan has good size up front. And while their strength may not be up to par with fourth- or fifth-year guys, the physical disparity should not be that significant if that's all it was. If you're the same size as your opponent but a little bit weaker, you should still not be giving up 7 sacks a game or rushing for -69 yards over a two-game stretch. The mental side of playing offensive line is what's killing Michigan right now.

2. The youth on Michigan's interior is sometimes blown out of proportion on the internet, although perhaps it's not commented on enough by the broadcast crew each Saturday. There should probably be a happy medium in there somewhere. Senior left tackle Taylor Lewan has done a very good job this year from whistle to whistle; the problem for him has been stuff before the play (false starts) or after the play (the MSU nonsense). Senior right tackle Michael Schofield is apparently being looked at as a possible second round pick, but I have a hard time believing that he'll be selected that high; he's so-so in the run and the pass, not dominant at either one.

The biggest problem, obviously, has been from guard to guard. Michigan has a bunch of guys playing out of position. It's a line in disarray. I'm giving Kyle Bosch a free pass because he's a true freshman and shouldn't be playing, anyway. But redshirt sophomore Graham Glasgow is a tackle or a guard playing center, who can't snap the ball, make proper line calls, or block the correct defender on a consistent basis; he's in over his head, and you can tell by the look on his face in the huddle - the game is moving too fast for him. Redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson is a left tackle playing right guard; the scouting report on him coming out of high school was "good pass blocker but needs to be more physical in the run game." You do not take a guy who lacks physicality and put him at right guard if you want to run over teams. That's the type of guy you hear about in year four or five when people say, "He's really improved over the past couple years and become a good run blocker." The other guy worth mentioning here is redshirt sophomore Jack Miller, who was brought in to be a zone-blocking center but tried to become a hybrid zone/power center before getting sent to the bench. Miller seems to be more mentally ready for playing center, calling protections, etc., but he loses ground too often. If you look at the pros and cons of Glasgow vs. Miller, I think Miller gets the nod after seeing both in action this year . . . but neither player is ideal.

Concluding the answer to question #2, I think Michigan has a decently talented crew of linemen who are playing out of place and being asked to do too much. If I were Michigan's coaching staff, I would at least attempt to see what it looks like with Lewan at left tackle, Schofield at left guard, Miller at center, Glasgow at right guard, and Magnuson at right tackle; that way you have a strong side with Lewan/Schofield, a better general at center, and Glasgow/Magnuson playing their more natural positions.

3. Young linemen do a better job of blocking forward/out (gap or man blocking) than zone blocking, because zone blocking requires timing and an understanding of defenses that takes time to develop. Most high school teams don't run zone the way that colleges do, and especially when you have a dominant lineman, you use him to crush down one side of the line while you run right off his butt. Zone blocking became all the rage because it allowed smaller, more athletic, but less dominant blockers to double-team and "just get in the way" to allow runners to pick an alley. But high schools that produce 6'5", 300 lb. linemen don't need that kind of tactical advantage.

I've taught zone blocking to high schoolers, and I've taught gap blocking to high schoolers. The zone concept is easier in theory but ten times more difficult to put into practice because you're taking guys who are normally very aggressive and teaching them to take an angle bucket step, read the defender, and then react appropriately by double-teaming, taking over a block, or going up to the next level. Rather than saying before the play "I've got that guy," now these guys have to say "I've got this guy, this guy, or that guy, depending on what they do when my buddy snaps the ball." Unless you teach zone exclusively or almost exclusively, it's going to be very tough sledding.

4. I was really frustrated with Borges during the Nebraska game because of his insistence on running the ball when it clearly wasn't working for the second week in a row. I mean, Michigan hasn't been able to run the ball consistently all year, but Michigan State stops you with their defense . . . fine, they do that to everyone. When Nebraska's 85th-ranked rushing defense stops you and you still keep slamming your head into the wall, I start to have questions about your willingness to adapt.

All that being said, I think Michigan fans have to accept that what is being put on the field is bound to be unsuccessful much of the time. I suggested a lineup change above that I believe would help, but that won't instantly make Miller, Glasgow, and Magnuson great football players. When three-fifths of your offensive line is overmatched mentally and physically, there's not a whole lot you can do as a play caller to mitigate the problems.

My suggestions for Borges would be to concentrate on one type of run play (zone or power) but not both, develop more play action off your best run play (currently the inverted veer), throw more screens until defenses stop blitzing, roll or half-roll Gardner, throw more quick-hitting passes, and resort to an occasional or full-time no-huddle to prevent defenses from having so much time to key in on formations, personnel, etc. Of course, Al Borges knows a ton more about football than I do, so he probably doesn't need my suggestions. But as an offensive coordinator, that's how I would try to get around my weak offensive line.


  1. Besides playing Miller, I like your suggestions. Simplify the play-calling for them and call more short-passes to limit their exposure. It will increase their confidence a bit and I think the young guys need that right now. This is a dumb thing to say, but I really believe it from watching their body language - they look like they are playing scared, or at least uncertain. Same goes for Gardner really, and probably Toussaint as well, though I don't see the bad body language there.

    Completely disagree about Miller. He has NEVER shown he is a good football player. He is undersized and even he admits he has to "play perfect" to overcome it. He doesn't have Molk's strength or the technique to overcome it. Putting him out there may fix your snapping issues but it's kind of like fixing Gardner's INT issues -- you lose more than you gain. He's just not a good player. He was buried on a mediocre line last year and lost his job on a terrible line this year. Let's just move on.

    I do like the Lewan-Schofield on the same side of the field idea. It makes sense to me, but mainly because it puts Magnuson at his natural tackle spot. At this point Michigan should be preparing for next year, so that we don't have to break in two new tackles. I do like the run-left idea, but I'd keep Bosch in a guard and keep Glasgow at center - he's our best long-term option.

    Now for a tangent: People keep talking about size being adequate, which I agree with in general. However, the point that I think is missed is that the size was adequate last year too. Glasgow is 5 pounds lighter than Mealer. Bosch is 3 pounds lighter than Omameh. Magnuson is a pound lighter than Barnum. Last year people said "we need to get bigger", but this year no one seems to be saying it. I certainly never heard "we have good size". Strange to me. It's like because they are Hoke guys they gain 10 public perception pounds.

  2. This is one of the most informative posts I have read this month. And it's about UM's biggest struggle. Well done.

  3. Seems the seniors left could be great. I'd even throw Kalis out there once in a while (they have been anyways), in fact the coaches seem to be bringing him along more naturally - limited reps given his age - than the other youngsters.

    Magnusson did pretty well at RT in Happy Valley when Taylor went out and Schofield shifted. Against N'western and Iowa don't think we lose much there.

    Miller was brutal but maybe having Schofield beside him would alleviate some of the pressure on him to play perfect and fix our snapping issues, which are delaying the whole offense by half a second per play.

    Great post and great follow up by Lanknows!

  4. We knew going into this season that the Oline would be inexperienced and have some growing pains. But the biggest concern I have, and one that is not mentioned, is that there has been NO improvement over the course of the season on the Oline (or in any aspect of the team, for that matter). With a bunch of (supposedly) very talented, but young recruits, you would expect them to get better as they gain more head-to-head experience, and learn to work together, and there's been absolutely none of that. If anything, the Oline has looked worse as the season has progressed. That's not to say that a bunch of first and second year players should be reaching their playing peak during the course of one season, but they SHOULD be heading up, not down, and that's not happening. That's all on the coaches.