"Northwestern fans can be both heartened and disheartened by the loss to Minnesota just like how nineteenth-century resurrectionists were heartened when they pried a heart from a freshly-buried corpse and then disheartened it when they sold it to a disreputable anatomist."
"The experience he has from last year is starting to show," Jazz forward Gordon Hayward said. "He’s making shots, and he made some gutsy plays against Portland. He’s got a confidence about him that he can get the job done."
Conference play has come, and Big Ten teams can safely retreat to their thunderdomes to clobber each other in peace, insulated from the braying mockery of the national media. There is still upheaval. Michigan has fallen apart. Dave Brandon and Brady Hoke have been confined to the Touliers Palace.
“What are you shaking your head about? Don’t start this like that. I want positive karma out of you. Hi. How you guys doin’? Heiko, what’s happenin?”
MGo: Not much.
“Always good to see you.”
MGo: It’s good to see you, too.
“You didn’t mean that.”
MGo: I’m really sad that you didn’t run any pistol formations.
“We don’t have any pistol formations. How could we run it? But if you’d like us to put them in we’ll be happy to do so just to make you happy.”
MGo: That would be great.
“Because my life revolves around your happiness if you haven’t figured that out by now.”
The first play from scrimmage was a 30-yard pass down the sideline to Amara Darboh. Was that to show people that they don’t need to worry about the wide receivers?
“Heh. No. That wasn’t what I was thinking. No, we were just thinking -- it’s always a good idea every so often in coming out on offense to try and take a ball deep. Our defense isn’t necessarily like this, but a lot of defenses will get a little reckless, you know? They’ll try and create a safety or whatever. A deep ball sometimes is a pretty good deal so we just decided at least once we were going to try and do that. That’s the reason for it.”
That was our first chance to see Darboh and Jehu Chesson and Jeremy Jackson. Was this a culmination of how they progressed this spring?
“Yeah. Pretty much. Yeah. Amara and Chesson, although Jehu didn’t do as much because we only ran 60 plays, but Jehu has made some great plays in our scrimmages, and Amara has, too. That position, I’m not ready to say that we’ve arrived, but they are certainly on track to. They’ve done a nice job all spring. And then our experienced guys, like Jeremy --”
Does it help to have a solid spring under their belt going into summer and fall?
“Yeah. Yeah. I think it does. Now they have to go through the summer, because we can’t coach them anymore. They have to be kind of self-starters and just continue to develop, you know? The quarterbacks will run offseason stuff and they’ll get some good -- a lot of time between now and August, some great opportunities to develop within our system even though we’re not going to be able to coach them.”
How has Devin Gardner matured from the time you got here to now?
“Oh, a ton. A lot. He just -- the biggest thing is the little things. The economy of movement within the pocket where he’s not wasting a lot of time taking a step that’s not necessary that may slow down a throw. That’s a big, huge part of playing quarterback is when the ball comes out. The ball comes out as a receiver comes open, not when the receiver is open because when you throw it when the receiver is open, they tend to close throws or break them up or intercept the ball. His economy of movement is so much better. His athleticism kind of speaks for itself. His ability to improv is hard to coach, yet we coach a lot of things within that improv to be structural, so there are certain things you have to do even when you’re improv’ing, but he’s certainly capable of doing that. In answer to your question, I think he’s come a long way, but I think he’s still got a long way to go.”
Is most of that mental?
“Oh yeah. It’s always -- and we’re adding bits and pieces that tests that, okay? So yeah, this position is so much from the neck up. I mean, assuming you possess the skills to throw the ball, the athleticism to run when you have to, this game is 90% from the neck up.”
What kind of tests?
“Well, the bullets flying in the arena. That’s the biggest thing. All the stuff we do out here is great. But I tell the quarterbacks and anybody else, that for every rep you take in practice out here, when you take it in the game it’s five-fold. As a coach, you can be teased into thinking someone can do something when in reality it’s a lot different on Main Street than it is on State Street. So we find out that a lot of things, as I told you guys last year, they’re game-specific. And that’s the true test. Can you do it on Main Street under the pressure of having over 100,000 fans watching and television audiences and mom and dad and everybody. That’s when you find out what the players are about.”
How much of the offense have you installed?
“We got a bunch of it in, but we just didn’t run it much in the spring game. We got pretty much the nucleus. We got probably 90 percent plus before the spring was out, but we just took a little piece of it and ran it in the spring game.”
One of the things Sports Illustrated mentioned was you were running power to the play side and zoning the back side? Is that true?
“I’d have to see that article.”
It struck me -- I don’t know how you run zone on the back side when you’re pulling the back side guard.
“I don’t either. I’d have to see that. That question’s too hard for me to process without knowing what context that was put in. Sorry for not having a better answer.”
MGoPiggyBack: How would you evaluate the ability of your guards to pull?
“They can move. Yeah. That’s not an issue. All our guards are athletic. Every one of them. And because we do run a lot of power schemes, it’s critical that those kids have a good hit percentage on the front side. And by hit percentage, meaning they can find the inside linebacker, target him and get him blocked, and if you can’t move, you’re going to struggle doing that. But all our kids through the spring, Darrell Funk does a great job coaching that play and every play for that matter. But particularly that play because we run it a lot where the guards have to pull and target their guy and find their guy and hit people on the move, and that’s not easy to do.”
MGoBabyMonkeyOnAPig: On Saturday there were a couple plays where Kyle Kalis pulled and looked like he was in the right spot but there was no one for him to block because both inside linebackers had already hit the gap. Was there something the offensive line could have done better on that play?
“I have to see exactly the plays you’re talking about, but the key to any play, the power play being one of many, is you have to get the play started so that those pulls matter, you know what I’m saying? If someone leaks through or you miss a run through or there’s some form of penetration, you could be the greatest puller in the world, it’s never going to show up because the play doesn’t get started. That’s the key really to the whole running game. Even if you don’t target the front perfect, if you can get every play started so that when the back gets the ball and he has a little room, a good back will make yards. Sometimes the issue is getting the play started. I think that’s probably what happened during the plays you’re talking about.”
MGoFleckOnTheSpeckOnTheTailOfTheFrogOnTheBumpInTheLogInTheHoleInTheBottomOfTheSea: What are you most happy about with your offensive line, and what’s your number one concern?
“Oh I think there’s been great development from the beginning to the end. Our biggest issues as coaches is this: we don’t like re-coaching. Re-coaching means, I told you to do it, now do it. I don’t want to have to tell you to do it again the next day. Cure your mistakes and if you make mistakes, make new mistakes, and we’ll just fix that. But if you’re re-fixing the same thing time and time and time again, we got issues because someone’s either not coachable or not very smart. What I’m saying is, that’s where I think I like this the best. I think for the most part, our kids from the first to the 15th day, I haven’t done a lot of re-coaching.”
Joe Kerridge and Sione Houma -- what’s the competition like at fullback?
“Sione Houma is in the fold. Those two are battling it out. You have to understand we play with a move guy, too. A U guy or a tight end type. Funchess or Jake Butt, those kinds of guys. Their skill sets are similar. It’s not exactly the same, but they’re similar. They’re all kind of competing for the right to be the lead blocker or the lead receiver on certain play-action passes for that. They’re all kind of in the fold, but Joe has been a pretty consistent entity, and he knows our offense pretty well. He’s tough, he’s unselfish, which is really probably the first prerequisite to playing fullback. He knows that you’re going to be running into people a lot. You’re not going to be carrying a ball too much. If you’re buying into that, which Joe has and most of the other guys have, you have a chance.”
Any separation in running backs? Any changes?
“Yeah it’s about the same. About the same. Nothing’s really chagned there, but that’s not unusual. For three springs it’s been like that. Here’s your issue with running back, and in particularly spring football and somewhat in fall football, but a little less in the fall. In spring football, you got four or five of them, right? And you have a 60-play scrimmage where you run the ball about half the time, maybe a little bit more. Now do the math. When does a running back really get a chance to gain enough inertia to prove to you he can carry the ball 20 times? Now you could fire four of them and let one carry it every single time, but now you may be firing one of the guys that should be carrying it. Unless he busts for some long run or does something everybody would notice, it’s hard to really get a feel for who’s the guy who will carry the ball every single time.
"Now in the fall, we’re a little different. In the fall, because we’re getting ready for football games, we’ll feed a guy a little more in scrimmages. In , with Fitz, we went through about half the year, and we said, we’re going through this doggone running back by committee deal, we finally decided put him in there, leave him in there, and let’s go. Fitz came to the surface. And I think Fitz will again before it’s all said and done. What do you find out? You find out a little bit about whether he can win the deal, but is he the running back? The guy? Unless he’s a phenom, it’s hard to find out in the spring.”
So you think Fitz is still the guy?
“He’s certainly going to get a chance to prove it. I’ll say that.”
If you had to play today, who would it be?
“Who would it be? I wouldn’t even commit to that yet, with Fitz being in the condition he’s in and such, I wouldn’t commit to it.”
You’re a Bill Walsh disciple. Walsh liked to use static offenses on formations. In the bowl game this year, I counted more than 40 different formations -- correct me if I’m wrong.
“Yeah, we counted them, but I’m not going to give you the number. But Bill was a multiple formation guy, too, now. Bill could run anywhere from -- now you have to remember in pro ball they only run about 65 plays. You run a little bit less than you do [in college]. Bill would throw 35, 40 formations at you. He wasn’t a big shift guy.”
You’re more of a shift guy.
“But that’s really just -- I hate to use the word ‘camouflage,’ although that’s a little bit of it, but it’s more just that the defense can’t always play with their cleats in the ground, you know what I mean? The defense would love for you to just line up in I-formation, here we come. And if you’re really good like USC back in ’06, you know? They could do it. But not many teams can do that anymore. You have to have enough variation in your offense and change your looks without having to recreate a new offense every week so you still have a core of plays that you can run from a multitude of different looks so the defense doesn’t get settled in all the time.”
What was the rationale behind playing walk-on DeAnthony Hardison so many snaps when there was limited playing time for the other guys?
“Oh, we wanted to give everybody a chance to get in there. That’s the spring game. Every spring game we put everybody in there and give them all a chance. The spring game is not indicative of how we play a game. I never like spring games because they’re not. That’s why I don’t like them, and usually offense doesn’t look good. And we weren’t all bad, but we weren’t all good.”
Jake Butt did some nice things. Does he have the skills to compete for playing time?
“Sure. Yeah. Absolutely. He’s a talented kid. I heard Greg talking about how Dymonte or somebody should be at their prom. I think one of our kids said actually that their prom was this week. Jake’s one of those guys. He should probably be at his prom. But he’s exactly what we recruited. He’s like any other kid that comes here. He gets stronger and does some things, but he possesses the skill set to play the position, and that’s what we care about. If he has the skill set, it’s our job to get him stronger and faster and learn the system and do all that stuff, but he’s really been a nice addition.”
Three tight ends caught passes. Is that reflected of an emphasis on the tight end passing game?
“A little bit, yeah. Now I’ll say this, that was not an intent going into the game. But as long as we have good receiving tight ends, then it’s our job to see to it that they get the ball. So when this offense runs the way it’s supposed to be run, the tight end can be a featured receiver. He can be one catching as many passes as a wideout can.”
Experimenting with Funchess at receiver?
“Funch is a good receiver, and we know it. You saw it yesterday. He made one great adjustment on a throw, which didn’t surprise anybody. With Devin, we wanted to give him the rest of his game shored up, so we could get in there more so [other teams] don’t think every time he comes in there it’s a pass. He did it. He took that to heart and proved his blocking, toughness, everything. As a coordinator I was happy with where he started and where he finished, and I think Danny Ferrigno would tell you the same thing.”
As you round out the tight end skill sets, can the tight end be a bigger piece of the offense?
“You bet. I think it could be. Absolutely. I’m a tight end kind of guy. I love tight ends. Always have. I tell guys when we recruit them, when this thing’s working the way it should work, you’ve died and gone to tight end heaven, because this is a great place to play tight end. We don’t just play with one. We sometimes play with two, and last year a couple times we played with three. Now you don’t just put them out there to put them out there, they have to justify being on the field, but there’s so many things you can do with that position if you have a good versatile athlete. It’s limitless. Plus it raises hell with a defense. A guy that can attack the middle of the field quickly with the passing game and be able to block from the line of scrimage. That’s good stuff. The NFL epitomizes it.”
Do you consider AJ Williams a good pass catcher?
“He can catch them. AJ has good receiving skills, he really does. He’s not as fast as Devin Funchess, but we’re trying to get him more involved, too, so he’s not a one-dimensional guy very much in the same vein as Devin, only in reverse.”
Williams lost a bunch of weight. Will that help?
“That always helps. That always helps. But he’s still big and he’s still what we would classify as a Y tight end. He’s on the line of scrimmage, but to answer your question, we’re trying all we can to get all those guys involved in the passing game.”
Did Williams surprise you at all? He didn’t catch a single pass his senior year of high school.
“The left tackle’s ineligible. That’s what he played. That’s probably why he didn’t catch any. But I don’t think he caught one last year for us, but last year you have to understand those kids were being weaned a little bit. They had not played very much. We were trying to find roles for them without giving them all of it so they could be functional. Devin Funchess’s role was more to catch passes, and AJ’s role was more to block, but we’re trying to get where both are doing both, if that makes sense.”
Greg Mattison was pleased with his pass rush. How much of that is a function of the defensive line being good and how much of that is the offensive line needing work?
“All of the above. The pass protection is usually the slowest thing to come in spring football, particularly when you’re playing so many different guys in there. But we did improve in that area. We weren’t real good the other day on third down. We’ve been pretty good on third down, but we weren’t really good on third down the other day, and part of that was because we didn’t protect their four-man rush very good. But we’re getting better and by the time we shore up the dudes that are going to play, the guys that are going to play -- did I say ‘dudes’? I can’t believe I said that. Uh. When we get the guys that are going to play, I think that will come around quickly.”
Why does it take so long for pass protection to develop?
“Because it’s a different dynamic, if you know what I mean. You have to work with the guy next to you, which means the twists, blitzes, and twists with blitzes … oh gosh, it’s just all the variations they can give you, it takes a little time, particularly when you’re working with three new guys inside.”
You said you have 90% of the offense installed. Is that unusual?
“It’s unusual your first year. Your first year you install, you seldom install that much. But by the third year -- what really helped us was we got those five games where we started doing it. The names of what we do haven’t changed any. We still call the protections the same. We just ran the spread offense before where now we’re using the same words running different schemes. They know our numbering system, they know our protection system. That part of transformation has been, I won’t say seamless, but easier.”
Have you seen enough of Fitz in the non-contact drills to observe his progress?
“Yeah. I just met with him. I asked him, ‘Do you think you could have gone?’ Not that I wanted to. We had no intention of ever doing that. He said, ‘Coach, I think the last couple weeks I could have gone in there and taken a few.’ I said, ‘Awesome!’ Now maybe he’s just optimistic. I don’t know. But he’s just dying to play, and I can just sense it. He’s jumping around. He can’t wait to get back to play. Fitz is a baller. He loves to play, and we’re going to give him a chance when he gets back there to get back in the fold.”
When he got hurt, did you think he’d be at this point so quickly?
“No. I didn’t. I thought that -- I mean, the injury looked so graphic, I guess is the best word to say. You always kind of assume it’s worse than it is when it looks like that, but it really wasn’t. Because his work ethic is so good, because he’s intent on getting back, it’s not totally surprising, but a little surprising. I mean, if all of us looked at that injury, I think most of us would have guessed he wouldn’t be where he is right now.”
I have to say, for the first time since the Hoke regime has arrived I am pretty excited about how the offense is going to look this year. In the past with Denard there was always a certain amount of trepidation with the start of the season as to how it would look and how Denard would be utilized. This year I am really looking forward to seeing what AB can really do with an offense better suited to him.
The situation at RB sounds less than ideal. If no one person stands out then you either have several really good players or all average ones. Fall practice, D. Smith and D. Green can't get here soon enough.
I really want to see how the WR's and TE's fair this year and the new guys like Darboh, Chesson and even Butt. I think the passing game will be very good this year.
I had the same thought. This is the third straight spring where the coaches have said that no one RB stands out above the rest. What I take that to mean is that the current RBs - Fleet, Rawls, Hayes, etc. - are each basically just a guy, and that none are good enough to separate from an uninspiring pack.
If Fitz is 100%, it seems like he will be the guy. If not, I assume that we will see either Smith or Green emerge as the lead RB by around the time of the ND game.
"Less than ideal" is definitely a way to put it. I'm not TOO concerned, partially because they're up against a Greg Mattison defense and partially because O-line takes time to develop, but the lack of an elite RB was sort of a given (unless Derrick Green takes the position by storm). They'll struggle against the tougher defenses but one thing going for this team is that it has more weapons all around. A lot of it's raw but Darboh, Funchess and Gallon are all legitimate threats -- and don't forget Dileo. If Borges can get the defense to fear the passing game, the RB only needs to be decent. If not, well. . . watch Devin Gardner pass for 300-400 yards a game.
Thank you, thank you, thank you Lewan for staying another year. We're gonna need every ounce of pass protection we can get this season.
I think the more telling part is that Fitz, despite not practicing and frankly not being that great last year, is still penciled in as the starter in Al's mind. It definitely makes me think it's "all average one" and not "several really good players" unfortunately. That said, I think Hayes/Norfleet will have a big role whoever the bellcow turns out to be.
No offense, but this is kind of an obvious statement. Our starting RB has a broken leg, and the #1 RB in the country (according to some) isn't on campus yet. Those are the facts. So of course it's "less than ideal" because the ideal situation would include both of those guys.
If Toussaint had created more last year before his injury--I consider most of the problems blocking but he definitely missed some cuts when the opportunities came--the situation would be pretty close to ideal. We have an established starter returning for his third year as that. We have two of the best recruits in the country at a position that freshmen are most likely to succeed at early. And we have a stable of experienced backups with variant skills who just got all of spring to run with ones and get a feel for what they can contribute. Ideal is returning a senior Anthony Thomas with Chris Perry coming in, and having guys like B.J. Askew and Justin Fargas and Walter Cross and Kelly Baraka around. This isn't that but it's pretty darn close to ideal.
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I tend to think that when people say 'no one stands out', 9 times out of 10 it's because no one is great, not because everyone is great. At USC when no one stands out at RB, you're probably still gonna do alright. Everywhere else? Probably not
I think it's hilarious that this blog has so incessantly advocated for a few specific wrinkles via questions in pressers (ones that I tend to agree with) that Borges acknowledges it in his banter with Heiko. More importantly, I'm pretty excited about seeing what Borges can do when he's comfortable in his own offense.
He looked a LOT more comfortable today. Some of that could be lack of pressure in the spring, at least as far as Hoke treats this as an exhibition (as well he should). But I mean, he was very chatty in the video.
I've been as critical of Borges as any because I took his "use what works" philosophy to heart only to see him run a spread offense that was way more predictable than it should've been for all the variations it had, but in hindsight it seems to me like he was VERY uncomfortable working with the spread -- far more than he ever let on, which is understandable considering the poker game coaches play with each other. He's not gonna go out and say, "I've never done this so I'm really winging it right now," but I don't think I've ever seen him that comfortable yet excited at a presser. It's obvious this guy is a Walsh disciple through and through, I mean way more than he let on. Now that he's no longer cramming his brain into a jelly jar, hopefully we'll witness the firepower of his fully armed and operational pro-style offense.
I’m a tight end kind of guy. I love tight ends. Always have.
"It would be a travesty, it would be ridiculous to all of a sudden come back and get the feeling back, get the health back, feel good again and then all of a sudden go throw some other colors on my shirt and go coach."
“True loyalty is that quality of service that grows under adversity and expands in defeat. Any street urchin can shout applause in victory, but it takes character to stand fast in defeat. One is noise — the other, loyalty.”
Are the non-MGo questions getting both better and worse?
While we get questions about Sports Illustrated making stupid assumptions and calling them out for it, and people actually counting the formations we run, we still get things like "did you run a pass play just for the fans?" (No, no. Never.) and "why did a walk on get to play in the Spring Game?" (Because he might never see the field in a game and it's nice to reward a kid by playing in front of the fans and his family. Plus with no seniors and very few freshmen, it's not a deep roster.).
I, too, found the walk-on RB question stange/silly.
When Green, Smith and Fitz are ready in the fall we're going to have SEVEN scholarship RBs.
What walk-on is EVER going to play in that situation?
Even if you assume one of the freshman redshirt. You're talking about at least 2 scholarship guys just fighting it out for the meaningless carries vs. EMU.
And why does it matter anyway? The audacity.
“True loyalty is that quality of service that grows under adversity and expands in defeat. Any street urchin can shout applause in victory, but it takes character to stand fast in defeat. One is noise — the other, loyalty.”