The Auburn Perspective On Al Borges

The Auburn Perspective On Al Borges

Submitted by Brian on January 19th, 2011 at 11:54 AM

Now that Mississippi State has been pointlessly scouted to death, Michigan fans have set to finding fans of every team Al Borges ever coordinated. Maize 'n' Brew put Cal up first despite the fact that Borges's tenure there consisted of a single star-crossed year; this is the view from the plains.

Many thanks to Jerry Hinnen of War Blog Eagle and CBS's generically named but excellent College Football Blog.

Here goes:

al-borges-auburn

So, Al Borges. I won't bury the lede: after watching him for four years at Auburn, I don't think he's a particularly good fit for Michigan's current personnel, Denard Robinson most especially. He is as advertised: a veteran, pro-style, pass-first West Coast disciple. But there's a reason he's that veteran, namely that he's a whip-smart, clever, above-all solid offensive coordinator.

He might not be a Malzahn or Kelly-style miracle worker, but I can assure you he's not a Jeff Mullen or Steve Addazio or Patrick Nix, either. (No, I wouldn't expect the return of the Avalanche anytime soon.) Given the right tools to work with and a quality defense on the other side of the ball, there's no reason Borges couldn't be the coordinator for a championship-caliber Big Ten team.

Auburn fans would argue he proved that in 2004; it's a testament to how dominant that offense was (and how wretched it had been the year before*) that even after his final two teams finished 76th and 97th in total yardage, he remains universally respected and admired among the Tiger fanbase. Yeah, a well-trained sugar glider [ed: ?] could have turned Campbell, Williams, Brown, Marcus McNeill, etc. into a competent offense, but that 25th-place finish in total offense you mentioned doesn't come close to doing that unit justice. They finished fifth in yards-per-play, first in yards per-pass attempt (at 10.0 a pop), second in passing efficiency, all against an SEC schedule and all with Tuberville's Carr-like insistence on downshifting into clock-killing mode as soon as the lead hit two scores. (Which it did a lot that year.)

Before that year Campbell had been a head case who'd already gone through three coordinators in three seasons. Borges got his head on straight, deployed the two-headed monster of Williams and Brown to maximum efficiency, and even added in the occasional gimmick play to good effect. It really was a terrific coaching job, and a lot of Auburn fans will tell you his 2005 effort -- in which Auburn finished 24th in yards per-play and scored 27 or more points 9 times, despite replacing Campbell with Brandon Cox and and not discovering a running back until Kenny Irons emerged at midseason -- was even better. (They're exaggerating, but it was still awfully nice.)

So what happened after that? Certainly Tuberville's conservatism and the lack of help from the world's most mediocre set of position coaches (the same ones who eventually got Tony Franklin fired midseason) didn't help, but the principal problem IMHO was the collapse of the passing game. Cox's myasthenia gravis—a debilitating muscle disease—seriously reduced his effectiveness, a series of recruiting busts meant that there were no replacements for the two departed NFL receivers on the outside, and the loss of McNeill opened up huge problems in pass protection. For a coordinator who set up his running game with the threat of an efficient passing game (even in 2005, Cox threw 44 times against Ga. Tech, 40 times against LSU, 33 times vs. Wisconsin, huge numbers for a Tuberville team), this was DEATH.

So how much blame does Borges finally share for the downturn? Not that much; the lack of player development from the position coaches, Tubby's handcuffing, and plain old bad luck in Cox's downturn hurt more than anything Borges did. Nevertheless, he does share some blame for things getting as rocky as they got, there's some lessons for Michigan's expectations for Borges here:

  • He needs the talent. Obviously, the array of tools at Borges' disposal in '06 and '07 wasn't nearly what it was in '04 and '05, but the cupboard wasn't as bare as to totally excuse the off-the-cliff plummet Auburn experienced. It may be fair to say that Borges is well-equipped to maximize a talent advantage over lesser opponents -- his success with a very talented SDSU offense by MWC standards this year would seem to be more evidence -- but isn't as effective "coaching up" lesser weapons. In the long term this is probably a good thing.
  • He's not going to recruit that talent himself. Can't speak for what he's done at SDSU or his previous stops, but virtually any skill position player who truly shone at Auburn -- during his tenure or after -- was either recruited under his predecessors or after he'd departed.
  • He's not super-flexible. Borges' schemes didn't change a whole lot as Cox's effectiveness decreased and his receiving corps began sucking. It was still the same array of mostly off-tackle and iso runs, play-action passes (yes, waggles!), and occasional pro-style passing concepts. They just stopped working. Borges made some offseason comments to the effect that Auburn would do more to get the running backs and tight ends involved in the passing game (as they had been in 2004), but that never really seemed to develop.

To that same point, Borges did precious little work at Auburn with a "dual-threat" quarterback, but what little he did wouldn't be very encouraging where Denard is concerned. That work came with Kodi Burns, who came to Auburn as a true freshman in 2007. Cox began that season completely out of sorts and Burns was brought off the bench in Weeks 2-4 to stop the bleeding. It didn't seem like Borges had made much of an effort to teach Burns the offense or develop a functional package to put his running skills to use; Burns seemed to mostly just take the snap and run around. A true freshman Kodi Burns might not have been able to do much more than that, but it still just didn't seem like Borges had much of an idea about what to do with him at that stage. Obviously Robinson is miles and miles ahead of where Burns was (or ever got to) as a quarterback, but maybe it's something to keep in mind all the same.

Again, none of that is to say Borges can't succeed at Michigan ... but the current situation just isn't in his wheelhouse. Based on the last half of 2005 (when Cox, Irons, and the AU receivers were at the height of their powers) and what he's done at SDSU this season with the Lindley-Hillman-senior wideouts package, I'd say the prototypical Borges offense is one with an accurate (and not necessarily strong-armed) pocket passer, big NFL-type receivers on the outside to stretch the field, and a single stud running back as a home run threat out of the backfield. It seems like aside from Darryl Stonum, Michigan doesn't have any of those things.

What's ironic, says Alanis, is that Michigan used to have those things in bunches. Give Borges Henne, Hart, Long, and Manningham/Arrington, and you're going to have one of the best offenses in the country, hands-down. And maybe he can work some magic with Denard (or Gardner), and Hopkins, and Stonum/Miller/Jackson/whoever. But I can't shake the feeling that Borges is the right guy in the right place at the wrong time.

*[Since you asked, sort of, and because it shows how deeply, deeply flawed Tuberville's understanding of offense is, in 2003 Auburn used co-offensive coordinators: quarterbacks coach Steve Ensminger and offensive line coach Hugh Nall. Tuberville asked them to operate the identical scheme run by Bobby Petrino in 2002, but with a twist: he would ask them for either a running play or a passing play as the situation demanded, and then Nall would make the playcall if Tubby had requested a running play, and Ensminger the playcall in the event of a pass. (I don't think this has been officially confirmed, but it's a matter of general understanding amongst Auburn fans.) And that is how you take Campbell, Williams, Brown, and like four other NFL players and wind up with a lousy offense. Nall wound up as a trucking company executive when he left Auburn; Ensminger's next job was as an assistant coach with a local high school.]

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Jerry walked back what pessimism existed in the above—there but under the "this guy is pretty good" bit—in a brief addendum:

So I read back over what I wrote yesterday and it's too far on the negative side, I think. I don't mean to imply Borges can't/won't succeed at Michigan, I'm just worried it's going to take a couple of seasons for

1. Hoke and Co. to recruit the missing pieces for the offense (especially a load-carrying RB)
2. Borges to coach up the pieces he's got, like (hopefully) Gardner.

Given the state of the defense, I wonder if he'd really be given the necessary slack to survive a Rodriguez-like transition period. But Mattison ought to help. If he's Hoke's Malzahn, there's no question Borges can be his Ted Roof.

Jerry

I think Borges will be all but forced to adapt when there turn out to be things that work with Denard and things that don't. In the Cox case above criticisms about not adapting to the situation might overlook the fact that there's no adaptation that turns suck into not suck. See Michigan's 2008 offense—when you don't have anything you can adapt all you want and you're still going to be hilariously bad.

This Mailbag Attempts To Answer The Unanswerable

This Mailbag Attempts To Answer The Unanswerable

Submitted by Brian on January 18th, 2011 at 12:27 PM

Most of the questions in my inbox I don't have an answer to, but does that ever stop sportswriters? No.

1.  With all the Hoke love from ex-players & everyone else for that matter, how could Bill Martin have misread the whole "Michigan Man" situation when he hired RichRod?  He had to get some sort of vibe about supporting a MI Man & not an outsider.  Did he ignore this, or was he ignorant of it?

Bill Martin seems like an affable sort of guy, but an affable sort of guy who wasn't actually on the football team and really likes sailing. I bet he was taken aback by the way Rodriguez's tenure developed. I think most people were surprised the vehemence with which Rodriguez was denounced once he started losing games.

But I'm not sure it really mattered, since at the time there were no Michigan Man options that were even vaguely plausible. Hoke—the sole Carr assistant to have a head coaching job at the time—was idling at 7-6 in his fifth year at Ball State. DeBord had failed miserably at CMU. Ron English was in charge of the defense that made The Horror and Post-Apocalyptic Oregon Game possible. Harbaugh was still unproven.

Even if Martin could anticipate a negative reaction from the Carr clan, it's not like there was anything he could do about it without producing a backlash 10 times as massive as this year's Hoke doubt.

2.  With all the shouts of failure to hire a BIG name coach, looking at the hires of the last few years from "elite" schools: USC - Kiffin, Miami - Temple's coach, Florida - Tx D Coordinator, Florida St. - Jimbo Fisher, Notre Dame - Kelly, Tennessee - Dooley; big name coaches from big name schools rarely switch jobs within the college ranks - the last BIG name coach to do so would have to be RichRod - food for thought.

-Nathan

I guess that depends on your definition of the word "big." It's true that most jobs on the Michigan/Oklahoma/Florida/ND level are terminal destinations. But Stanford isn't, especially when the guy at Stanford is a famous Michigan alum. Harbaugh should have been poachable, and maybe he was but for the NFL. We'll never know. Meanwhile, there is a list of guys who are acquirable who may not be "big" names but seem like as good of any idea as possible when you switch coaches.

As for that list above:

  • Fisher was a hot OC at LSU that was imported to be HC in waiting/by proxy in the same sort of transition that saw Bielema and Chip Kelly smoothly ascend to the throne and experience fairly quick success. (Bielema took a little while to get going.)
  • Muschamp is an archetypical hot coordinator.
  • Brian Kelly qualified as a big name in the mold of Urban Meyer after championship runs at two different schools experiencing their greatest success.
  • Kiffin was the last act of an idiot and was met with the same sort of love at USC he was after his departure from Knoxville.
  • Dooley was a last second desperation hire after Kiffin left that was like hiring Hoke in 2007.

I'd say the first three are good ideas, the fourth a bad idea, and the fifth the sort of thing that happens when your head coach leaves in early January. In Tennessee's case they were left in the lurch involuntarily. Michigan did it to themselves.

At least Dooley provides a hopeful example. Despite being in shambles in mid-January they recovered decently enough in recruiting and outperformed expectations down the stretch. Sometimes guys catch fire with more resources and a fortunate recruit—or existing player—and that can quickly erase their uninspiring previous record. One year after Tennessee's Maple Street Annual asked me to write a piece about how to cope with a 3-9 crater, there is palpable optimism in Knoxville.

Brian,

In the presser introducing Hoke as HC, Dave Brandon mentioned that he was a "data guy," and that the data showed that when you bring in a HC w/no ties to the area and/or university, it usually doesn't work.  However, a look at the top programs in recent college football history show important counterexamples:

  • Urban Meyer, Florida: no ties
  • Mack Brown, Texas: asst coach Iowa State 1 year, OC Iowa State 2 years (1980-81), OC Oklahoma 1 year (1984)
  • Nick Saban, LSU: no ties
  • Les Miles, LSU: no ties
  • Pete Carroll, USC: OC U. of Pacific, 1 year (1983)

Did these guys have assistants on staff who had ties?  What was the key to their success in winning over the respective fan bases?

-Steve

Winning games? Those guys save Carroll and Meyer all came from BCS programs they had significantly outperforming their historical baseline, and Meyer had just turned Utah into the #2 team in the country after making Bowling Green a terrifying MAC opponent. And then they won immediately. Saban was 12-2 in year two. Miles lost six games in his first three years. The first time Mack Brown won fewer than nine games at Texas was this year. Meyer won the national title in year two.

Before any of these guys could be hated they were loved, and Rodriguez probably could have managed that trick if he hadn't presided over the worst three year stretch since Harry Kipke*.

If there's a common thread between these coaches it's recruiting, where all were monsters. You knew that's what you were getting with Brown, suspected it with Saban and Miles, and hoped for with Carroll.

*[I have your back, MVictors]

So, I've accepted the fact that we have Hoke and Borges (mostly).  The offensive personnel is obviously geared toward a zone read option type of offense with athletic lineman, lots of slot ninjas and a running quarterback.

Two actual questions for you:

1 - How is this line at pass protection?  Do the techniques change much between zone-read option spread teams and pro-style teams?  I know Kerrigan, Liuget and Watt were blowing up our plays quite a bit, but I'm hopeful the assignments and techniques would not be very different.  Now, Iso-blocks on runs plays....argh.

It was difficult to tell since teams spent most of the year deathly afraid of losing gap responsibility and letting Robinson slip into the secondary. Many opponents seemed content to let Denard sit and survey. In one on one matchups the line did very well against Iowa, Michigan State, and Penn State but not so well against Purdue (ie: Kerrigan) and Wisconsin. The numbers were consistently 1) low in amplitude and 2) good in percentage. The line wasn't asked to do a whole lot. They usually did it well.

It was a mixed bag, but they were starting a redshirt freshman and an injury-laden platoon at the tackles. I don't think there's much of a difference in pass protection between the two offenses in terms of technique, but pro-style attacks usually put a greater premium on five- and seven-step drops.

A bigger concern than this being an awkward transition is how much of the good pass protection last year was an illusion wrought by Robinson and the scheme.

2 - Thinking about a pro-style offense that employs slots and would fit fairly well.... What about the Patriots offense?  Slot guys, undersized receivers and running backs....Obviously Tom never runs, but they could incorporate the single-wing QB runs and ISQD's pretty easily as well as roll-out run-pass option plays....Am I dreaming here?  Is there any way with the Michigan connections over there that Borges/Hoke could go in this offseason pick Belichick and Brady's brains and/or outright steal some of that offense all together?  What about the Eagles offense?  It seems this would be a pretty good recruiting pitch - "You know Tom Brady?  The Patriots?  That team that crushes people all the time? Yeah - we're running their offense."

Thanks!

Jason

The Patriots may be pros but they don't really run a pro-style offense anymore thanks to Brady. Unfortunately for Michigan's immediate future, the things that make Brady one of the greatest QBs of all time—pinpoint accuracy and I'm-from-the-future coverage reads—are the things Robinson has in shortest supply.

Long term I'm down with what seems to be Borges's preference for a pass-slanted West Coast offense, which is a system that works and works well when you've got the right guy at the helm. One positive about returning to something resembling the old offense is that college football's tilt towards spread systems has made pocket guys more available, and Michigan's reputation was enough to lure Ryan Mallett north despite that not being the best idea in the world for him personally.

The Al Borges File

The Al Borges File

Submitted by Brian on January 12th, 2011 at 12:43 PM

One of Michigan's open assistant slots is already filled, as Brady Hoke will bring offensive coordinator Al Borges along with him. Borges has been a college offensive coordinator for just under a billion years and in that time he's coached everywhere from Portland State to Auburn and UCLA, with varying levels of success. He's now 55 and looks like the dad from Arrested Development:

al-borges Arrested-Jeffrey-tambor4

So that will be terribly exciting for the subset of the population that will not shut up about Arrested Development no matter how many times you ask them to.

Numbers

His last decade by the numbers follows. Lines in italics are stats from the season before Borges arrived.

Year Team Rush YPC Pass Pass Eff YPA Total Scoring FEI
2000 Cal 80th 3.4 76th 95th 6 93rd 80th
2001 Cal 87th 3.4 53rd 96th 5.9 77th 104th
                   
2001 Indiana 4th 5.5 95th 72nd 6.9 19th 51st
2002 Indiana 93rd 3.2 33rd 84tth 6.8 69th 95th
2003 Indiana 59th 3.4 101st 105th 6.1 98th 114th
                   
2003 Auburn 29th 4.4 83rd 43rd 7.8 61st 66th
2004 Auburn 29th 4.3 40th 2nd 10 25th 18th
2005 Auburn 25th 4.8 70th 37th 7.6 37th 30th
2006 Auburn 47th 4.1 88th 37th 8.0 76th 56th
2007 Auburn 53rd 3.8 103rd 90th 6.5 97th 84th 24th(!!!)
                   
2008 SDSU 117th 3.1 42nd 95th 5.9 99th 104th 104th
2009 SDSU 116th 2.9 30th 73rd 7.1 86th 85th 93rd
2010 SDSU 48th 4.8 12th 20th 9.0 16th 19th 26th

For the record, Borges's 2000 season with UCLA saw the Bruins finish 100th in rushing offense at a miserable 2.5 YPC, 23rd in passing offense and 19th in efficiency. Borges's tailback was a junior DeShaun Foster; his quarterbacks anonymous journeymen.

Notes on the numbers:

  • Antwaan Randle-El was a senior in 2001 and in the NFL in 2002, explaining the Indiana collapse. Borges split the offense between two horrible pocket passers; it's unclear if he had anyone else. The Indiana offense got even worse in year two and then Borges somehow got the Auburn OC job.
  • At Auburn he was installed once the Tigers fell to a moribund 8-5—the numbers that year are propped up by monster games against ULM (73 points), WKU(48), Vandy(45), and Mississippi State(45). Auburn didn't put up 30 on any real opponent and failed to score ten four separate times. This was with a junior Jason Campbell and both Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams. Whoever Auburn's OC was in 2003 was an idiot.
  • So Borges took this and went vertical wih great success for the only single-digit performance of his aughts.
  • The popular conception of what went down with Tommy Tuberville is he let his neanderthal offensive assistants undermine his offensive coordinator whenever he threatened to deviate from extreme MANBALL, and I believe it. Until the bottom fell out in 2007 Auburn was a pretty efficient passing team that ran all the time despite not really getting anywhere.
  • The FEI rank for Borges's last year is so wacky and out of sync with how the world perceived it—Borges was shoved out the door and Auburn was desperate enough to import spread guru Tony Franklin—that is probably exposes a flaw in the methodology more than anything else, no offense to Mr. Fremeau.
  • As far as running quarterbacks go, current SDSU starter Ryan Lindley had –162 yards in two years under Borges, and his other guys were Brandon Cox, Kyle Boller, Horrible Indiana QB Du Jour, and Jason Campbell. None of these guys would win a foot race with John Navarre save Campbell, and he would only tie. Campbell had 30 yards rushing as a senior.

The NCAA's online stats don't go back far enough to capture the most successful period of Borges's career, the five year run at UCLA during which he convinced the NFL that Cade McNown was a viable quarterback and was twice a finalist for the Broyles award.

Style

As you can probably surmise from he numbers above, Borges is a traditional pro-style guy. Rodriguez has DVDs about the spread offense; Borges's is titled "Coaching the West Coast Quarterback." Smart Football on what Michigan should expect:

The rumor is he’s bringing Al Borges with him to be offensive coordinator; I’m already getting lots of questions about his so-called “Gulf Coast Offense.” I don’t know where that name came from, but as far as I can tell he’s a pro-style guy: nothing too exotic. But he’s been an offensive coordinator for a long time (close to two decades), in two major conferences (the Pac-10 at UCLA and Oregon and the SEC at Auburn), and when he’s had first-round NFL talent (Cade McNown at UCLA and Jason Campbell, Ronnie Brown, and Cadillac Williams at Auburn in 2004) he’s had elite offenses.

I think that sounds about right. Michigan’s coaching search was explicitly about someone who wanted to build the program, not hiring the next offensive genius. And I can’t really argue with that — the Rodriguez thing ended badly. That puts on the onus on Hoke, however, as he must recruit and build the program from the ground up; there won’t be any reliance on a decided schematic advantage to win. But is that a bad thing?

He also links three minutes of a hypothetical scrimmage between Borges and the Michigan secondary:

Generic pro-style against a bad defense.

As for the "Gulf Coast" thing, it appears to be some jibber-jabber from when he was freshly hired at Auburn and people were like "lol Auburn's not on he west coast." Apparently it consists of

  • west coast principles (short passes, backs, YAC)
  • post-snap route reads by the receivers
  • lots of formations
  • run-pass balance
  • tight ends

…ie, it's a generic pro-style offense that has a more advanced concept of routes than either Rodriguez's or Carr's offense did. It does appear that Borges leans towards throwing over passing when given the option but most of his rush offenses were mediocre. It's hard to tell what would happen if he actually had a good running game.

Well?

Michigan's new offensive coordinator has no experience working with a running quarterback and has pretty mediocre results over the past decade. The "elite" offense cited by Smart Football was 25th in total offense, though I'm sure FEI would look kindly on it because of SOS. The rest of it is bleah aside from the encouraging two-year development by SDSU. In Borges's defense he's been saddled with horrible quarterbacks for most of a decade and made good use of the one competent guy he did have. (Note: Kyle Boller may have been a first round pick but even the year after Borges was broomed with the rest of the staff he did not put up efficiency numbers any better than above.)

Borges looks like just a guy by the numbers, and he's just a guy who seems like the worst possible fit with Denard. Jason Campbell ran more when he got to the NFL. Hopefully there's some more flexibility in this offense than it appears at first glance, otherwise it's a fourth straight year with a new, underclass starting quarterback.