[Finally: A one-on-one chat with Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges that has been eight months in the making. In part 1, Borges describes a typical game week, talks about game planning, and shows me what his call sheet looks like.]
“Heiko, what’s up?”
Not much, how are you?
“Just wonderful. How are you?”
Good. It’s good to see you.
How’s the offseason?
“What offseason? I’m not seeing it.”
Oh yeah, you have recruiting stuff.
“It’s always the onseason.”
Anyway, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview.
“Yeah, it took us a while, but we finally found a time.”
I’m really interested to hear you describe a typical game week during the season, from Saturday to Saturday. A lot of our readers don’t know what happens behind the scenes, so it would be great if you could take us behind the scenes a little bit.
“Well the best way to start is not on Saturday. The best way to start is on Sunday. What we generally do is we come in and watch the previous game and grade it so that we can something to submit to the players and then after that -- we grade it on our own and then watch it ourselves together just to make sure that we’ve corrected all the errors we need to crrect. After that we have practice, which is brief. It’s not very long. It’s just to stretch our legs a little bit and see who’s injured and such.”
Do you work on fixing the mistakes?
“Generally we will go back over errors. Sometimes we’ll work on the pieces of the game plan for the next week, but most of the time it’s error correction. Following that, we come back in and have dinner, and then we have independent film study Sunday night, where all of us go on our own. Every coach on the staff has a designated responsibility with regard to the game plan. A certain coach has third down. A certain coach has red zone. A certain coach has goal line, short yardage, run game -- all the assistant coaches are assigned certain scenarios so that when we meet on Monday morning, everybody is prepared to present their presentation. They’re asked to be experts on what the opponent does in those situations.”
And you use cut-ups from opponents’ previous games, right?
“Right. But we don’t do them. The film people put together a certain amount of designated cut-ups with all those situations that we’re talking about.”
When does that happen?
“That happens prior to Sunday. They’ve already done it all. The’ve already done all the breakdowns. All of the GAs and the interns start the breakdown the week before, sometimes a couple weeks before. We do our film study on Sunday night. All of that’s cut up for us so that we go straight to it. I might look at a cut-up of screen passes to see what successful screens have been thrown against a certain team, if any. Sometimes a team’s hard to screen. So we cut it up in screen passes, nakeds, certain things that we may have in our offense to see if they work. And then we’ll look at those scenarios I’m talking about. Fred Jackson will be looking at third down. Jeck Hecklinski will be looking at red zone all by himself. I’ll be looking at general first and ten offense and all the formations that we may use during the course of the game.
“When we leave here Sunday night, we have a basic idea of what we’re dealing with on Monday morning. We come back in and all of us meet. We start the meeting, I don’t know, about eight o’clock. We will offensively meet from eight in the morning until probably 12 together and then just talk about first and ten offense and all this stuff we’ve studied off the tape and come up with a plan for early downs … run … play-action pass …”
Are any of the players involved in these meetings?
“No. No. They’re all off on Monday. We don’t even see the players on Monday.”
So most of the game planning happens on Monday.
“On Monday, right. That day is a clean slate for us, because we’re focused from morning, noon, to night on putting a plan together so that when we practice on Tuesday, we’re good to go.”
After breaking down the opponent’s defense, how do you come up with the game plan? Do you draw up new plays? Do you just take what you’ve already installed and just focus on a subset of plays?
“The nucleus of the offense is always intact. You never want to have to recreate the wheel, but there’s always nuance, you know. There’s certain things within your offense that you’ll tap more in one game than you might in another. You’ll have certain elements of surprise, whether it be with new plays or new formations or new shifts or something.”
How often do you add new plays or formations?
“Every week. Every single week there will be something new we will do.”
Do you do that more with certain opponents?
“No. I mean … No. After film study, sometimes there are teams that might be more vulnerable to certain stuff. But no. We go on with our game plan. We’re going to have a certain amount of plays regardless of what they do, and we’re going to have a certain amount of plays we’re going to run only if they do a certain thing. And then we’re going to run a certain amount of plays based on camouflage when they’re dressing for the play so they can’t tell what play’s coming, or a completely new play. So all those things. It’s not one thing. It’s a bunch of things.”
Who generally gives you input during that process?
What about coach Hoke?
“Coach Hoke has the plan presented to him once we’re done. Coach Hoke is more involved on the defensive side of the ball. What we do is we put together the plan and we present the plan and the approach to him. And if there’s anything he doesn’t like about the plan or the approach, he’ll tell us and we’ll tweak it to accommodate what he doesn’t want. He sits in there, for example, when we go back over the tape on Sundays. He will watch the tape with us and see how well the plan was implemented and offer us suggestions. Maybe personnel suggestions, maybe schematic suggestions or whatever just to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
Does the defense plan independently as well?
“Oh yeah. They have a plan for what they’re going to see and we have a plan for what we’re going to see.”
Is there any mutual self-scouting between offense and defense?
“No, not once the season starts. Not really at all, truth be told. We play against each other in two-a-days and we play against each other in spring football, but once we break into game planning, we scheme to beat the opponent. We still have crossover periods where we’ll go against each other --”
During the season?
“Yeah. Oh yeah. So we get fast looks against each other. We’ll do things so that we’re not always facing the scout team.”
I see. That’s really interesting (which is why I’m totally going to forget to follow up on it later). So Monday you decide on the game plan and you send it out to the players --
“No. Next day. We have no contact with the players on Monday. Anything they do they have to do it by themselves independently. It’s almost better that way because then we can have a little time together to put it together before we present it. So that’s what we do on Monday. When they come Tuesday, we have a plan ready for them that we’re going to implement and work on over the next three days.”
So you practice Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. What does each day look like?
“It’s different depending on the day. Tuesday day it would be addressing basically first-and-10 offense, second-and-medium offense -- your normal down-and-distance offense. Wednesday we would work more on red-zone offense, short-yardage offense, those types of things which are more directly related to scenarios … third-down offense … ”
And this is when you get the scout team to mimic everything the other defense would do.
“Exactly. Exactly. They just demo basically what the defense does and what you’re doing is constantly putting your offense in different scenarios. Blitz scenarios, coverage scenarios, red area, third down … You’re trying to test them on what they’re going to see knowing that they’re never going to see it probably at the same tempo that they will from the scouts. But you do the best you can to get as close as you can.”
What happens during position group meetings?
“Well, we have position meetings and some unit meetings where we’ll bring the offense together. We’ll present the philosophy behind the plan or just maybe some motivational things. We’ll meet several different ways. We’ll meet invidually more than anything, where you’ll be with your position coach so he can hone in on exactly what he wants you to do. When we meet as a unit, we call it a unit meeting where the coordinator will meet with the offense and cover some overall game plan pieces. And then you have full team meetings with the head coach and we can talk about what our goal for the week is. And then you’ll have a special teams meeting and you’ll lose some players when they meet with coach Ferrigno. We have a lot of different ways to meet.”
You work with the quarterbacks personally.
Is that uncommon for an offensive coordinator to do without a quarterbacks coach?
“No. That’s very common. Most coordinators work with quarterbacks. Not all do, because there are some that don’t, but most coordinators -- I saw something on that just the other day on how many guys [do it]. There was a survey. I saw most coordinators work with quarterbacks than anything else.”
What kinds of things do you work on with them? Footwork? Mechanics? Scheme?
“Oh, everything. Everything. You have to understand a coordinator has to wear a lot of hats. He is a multifaceted guy. He has to coach the quarterback -- he’s a position coach -- yet he has to have a hand in everything that goes on on the offensive side of the ball. He has to make sure that every correction is made correctly and is coordinated. Is he the line coach? No. The line coach knows more about the line than the coordinator does, but the coordinator has to make sure the line isn’t working independently from the running backs or quarterbacks. He has to coordinate the entire effort. If the pieces don’t fit together properly, then that’s a reflection of the coordinator and no one else. The depth of the route has to correlate with how deep the quarterback’s dropping, for example. If the depth of the route is being taught 16 yards deep, and the quarterback is not taking a corresponding drop, you have a lack of coordination.
“So all those pieces on every play -- you’re talking about literally hundreds of plays -- have to fit together and have to be coordinated. Blocking schemes, protection, route depths, landmarks for running backs, timing in the passing game, depth of patterns -- every piece has to be coordinated by the coordinator.”
And the quarterback has to understand all of those elements as well.
“Yeah, pretty much. But that’s not just ours. That’s pretty much any offense.”
With a guy like Devin who’s been in the system for three years now, what sorts of things do you focus on? I mean, do you still go through fundamentals during the season?
“Every day there’s some fundamental work. Some days longer than others depending on how much individual time you have during the course of the practice, but every day we go through a fundamental training of your footwork and how you -- all the little pieces of timings and throws. And sometimes there are individual periods where you’re working just with the quarterbacks, and sometimes there are periods where you’re working with another group. Maybe you’re working with the wide receivers, and maybe you’re working with some exchanges in the run game.”
Do you feel like there’s still a lot left to explain?
“Well there’s always something to explain, but it’s like you in school. If you’ve heard the same thing 50 times, you’ve probably have a lot better shot at knowing it than if you’ve heard it just once. We’re no longer a blank slate, now. As Shane Morris comes in, he’s a blank slate. But Devin’s not a blank slate, so you’re not starting from the beginning. But as a coach the one thing I’ve learned is you never assume anything. You go right back to the beginning when you coach each play. If it’s redundant then that’s fine, because coaching is about repetition and constantly repeating yourself even if in fact it bores a kid to tears because sometimes it’ll sink in after a while. But so much more is understood at this point, to answer your question.”
I see (and I would like to know more but we are straying off topic). So you work on something different each day of practice.
“Yeah. They’re all different. Wednesday’s more of a situational day, as is Thursday, when you’re working on two-minute, third-down periods, you recap your short-yardage, goal-line -- there’s some review involved in there, too. You have pieces of each day where you review the day before. You can’t spend a whole lot of time on that because you have to get to the next day, but certain things that were screwed up on day one that would need to be polished, you would go back to do it again on day two.”
Do you still script plays, by the way?
“Yeah. 15-17 plays. Yeah. We do that. That’s not new, though. That used to be an interesting thing. Used to get asked so many questions about that, but everyone does it.”
Do you rehearse the scripted plays in practice?
“Yeah. You rehearse them during the week and then you re-rehearse them on Thursday just to go back over it, because by Thursday you have an idea of what order you’re going to run them in. But you’re running them all through the week, so you constantly rehearse them.”
“Let me show you something, and this will probably help you a little bit.”
[Borges pulls out a big laminated sheet that has many color-coded panels. Kind of looks like Windows 8.]
“This was our Notre Dame game plan.”
[Borges points to first column.]
“-- would be the opening plays. And then these would be your ‘2nd down and 8+’ plays. And then you have a bunch of mini offenses in here, like when you’re coming out and backed up in your own goal line, you have a certain amount of runs and passes. This is so you can spit the play out fast. …”
[Borges continue pointing to panels that have lines of text that say something like “PA WIZ X Fly Z Out.” That’s probably not what any of them actually said (my photographic memory requires a lot of photoshop), but I think that particular line means play-action weak inside zone with the X receiver running a fly and the Z running an out.]
“… Third and short, third and medium, third and eight yards or more … goal line … you’re down inside the three-yard line … and then red-area plays … red zone … Everything’s based on film study. And once you’re through the openers, you have a certain amount of runs that you may want to run that didn’t make the cut in the openers. And you have a certain amount of passes that didn’t make the cut that you still want to run.”
How many plays are on this thing?
“Well, a lot of those are repeated in there. They’re not all individual, but some of them are. Two-minute situation, four-minute situation trying to run the clock out … and then you have general offense, like these are the plays by formation if you ever want to refer to plays by formation. And then if you just want to pick a play, for example, if I want to run a naked pass I have that’s available as either a stick or a screen, or a certain kind of special gadget play … You have a fast offense, which is Nascar.
“It’s all just a reference sheet is all it is. You have to understand when you’re calling the plays, you can’t balk, otherwise you have a delay of game. You have to have something ready and you have to be thinking ahead before you call that play. And all this preparation’s about that. It’s about having a play that has a chance to succeed, still knowing that regardless of what you call, you’re a victim of execution. You call some good plays, you call some bad ones. At the end of the day I’ve called some really good plays that weren’t executed very well. I’ve called some bad calls where the athleticism of the player bailed me out, so it’s worked both ways.”
Friday is mostly rest day, but you do a walk-through.
“Yeah. Exactly. That’s what it is. Special teams … basically a walk-through.”
Do you make any changes to the game plan on Friday?
“No. I don’t make any new decisions after Monday. Some coordinators, some head coaches will draw up a play on Friday night. [Shoot] I’ve seen guys do it on Saturday. Heh. I’m just not secure with that. If I don’t feel like we’ve practiced it into all the scenarios or at least some scenarios, I’m not confident the play will work when I call it. So I don’t do it, whereas a lot of guys will come up with plays on the bus.”
Have you ever felt unprepared at the end of the week?
“Never. Never once. I’ve never felt unprepared in 27 years of coordinating the offense. Now, we’ve LOOKED unprepared at times … But I’ve never gone to sleep the night before going, ‘Oh my God, we’re not ready.’ We overkill it, Heiko. That’s what you have to understand. We OVERkill it. I used to get really nervous before football games back in 1986 when I first started doing this. I was nervous. I couldn’t talk. I wouldn’t talk to anybody Friday night. I wouldn’t talk to anybody Saturday. But that stopped about 15, 20 years ago.”
“Yeah, probably around UCLA. That’s about right. I stopped getting nervous. I’d still get a little nervous, but nothing like I did -- NOTHING like I did. That’s all about preparation. I’ve felt that we’re ready to go. We’ve done everything we can to prepare this football team, and I’ve done everything I can -- and again, we overkill it. That’s why we’re here so late at night and that’s why we work on all that stuff. We overkill the prep, and sometimes it shows up, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you’ll swear we didn’t meet 10 minutes when you watch some of the plays.
“At the end of the day you’re a victim to execution or matchups. Sometimes you don’t match up very well -- that doesn’t happen a lot here -- but it’s just part of the deal. It’s still kids running the plays. Those aren’t X’s and O’s. They’re people.”