Devin Gardner had this to say to critics of Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges:
“Maybe they should try and find a job as an offensive coordinator then. Maybe they should be an offensive coordinator somewhere if they can do better. …
“You can think what you want, but the reality is [the fans] are where they are for a reason. They’re not offensive coordinators anywhere, and that’s the end of that.”
It’s true: I’m not an offensive coordinator. Nor will anything I post here lead to me landing a job as an OC, let alone Borges’ replacement. And yet …
Well, the fact of the matter is that Michigan’s offense has been abysmal of late, with most of the blame — including from Borges and Brady Hoke — falling on the team’s blocking and execution. But it is no secret that Borges’ play calling has hindered things further, with the Wolverines determined to become a pro style team regardless of their personnel.
Could the offense improve while also staying within the confines of Hoke’s vision for program’s future? Absolutely. Here’s how:
1. Use a fullback (and two-back sets) out of the shotgun
Michigan wants to keep a running back on the field at all times, presumably to prevent defenses from guessing too easily between run or pass. With Fitz Toussaint or Derrick Green alongside Devin Gardner in the shotgun, Borges can leave his RB in to block, float him out as a receiver or simply hand off the football.
Here’s the problem: Michigan’s backs have been horrible in pass protection, especially when it comes to picking up blitzers. As a result, the Wolverines essentially are wasting one of their playmakers as a turnstile on passing plays. What’s the point of having Toussaint on the field if a) He’s unable to protect Gardner; and b) He’s never going to be used coming out of the backfield?
So, the solution: Leave Toussaint/Green on the field … but put Joe Kerridge or Sione Houma out there as well, leaving a split-back formation with Gardner in the middle. This is far from a new idea — shotgun teams double down like this all the time, and it’s a prevalent formation for read-option teams in the pros, especially those that use H-backs.
With Kerridge to Gardner’s left and Toussaint to Gardner’s right, the Wolverines could improve their blocking, leave all their plays on the table, plus still run Devin Funchess, Jehu Chesson and Jeremy Gallon on routes.
2. Speaking of an H-back …
It’s beyond high time for Michigan to take better advantage of its talent at tight end, and mobilizing Jake Butt more consistently in an H-back role would help. An H-back (stands for “hybrid back”) falls somewhere between a fullback and tight end, often motioning behind the line prior to the snap. Michigan does use Butt, Funchess or even Kerridge like this on occasion, but it’s time to make it a full-scale aspect of the offense, preferably with two tight ends.
In an attempt to bolster its run game, Michigan has instead gone to six offensive linemen, unbalancing the line by moving Taylor Lewan to the right side. This is predictable, ineffective and decreases the athleticism on the field.
Sticking with a five-man line and going to more H-back heavy sets, with Butt or Funchess moving and the other set. You might remember the Wolverines using this look a little more frequently with Denard Robinson at the helm and, say, Kevin Koger as the H-back. Now, it’s an occasional adjustment but it could be a permanent fixture on the offense.
3. Take advantage of “long handoffs”
And by that, I mean throw the ball out to Gallon, Chesson or other receivers right at the snap. Not necessarily as the bubble or tunnel screens that Borges seemingly loathes, but instead to work against one-on-one situations.
Teams are loading the box against Michigan and blitzing heavily, often sending six or seven guys toward the ball at the snap. Which means that Michigan’s receivers usually see one-on-one coverage wide (possibly with some safety help over the top). Rather than try to beat those coverages with long crossing routes or deep patterns, Gardner ought to have the option to stand up and throw wide. What’s a better approach: Running into a seven-man box or putting the ball in Gallon’s hands by the sideline, with a cornerback in front of him?
The Wolverines have playmakers, guys who can break a tackle or two. But right now, those guys are not in the backfield. They’re wasting away out wide.
4. Scrap the read-option
This flies in the face of the notion that Michigan would be better off spreading the field and turning Gardner loose, but hang with me. The read-option does not work right now, mainly because teams have zero fear of Michigan’s backs. When the Wolverines call this play, defenses can focus full attention on Gardner and be 100 percent confident that they’ll be able to shuck blocks to recover to Toussaint or Green in the event of a handoff. The only thing that’s kept defenses honest out of this call has been Gardner faking a handoff, then dumping one up the seam for a quick strike.
Gardner is not Denard Robinson — both in good ways and bad. Robinson did not need a lot of space or sensational blocking to turn him loose into the secondary. Gardner does. Michigan’s not capable of creating that space right now.
5. Where are the safety valves?
Remember that third-down play on Michigan’s final drive last Saturday? Gardner rolled left, where one Michigan receiver was streaking downfield and two more — one shallow, one medium-depth — had broken routes out toward the sideline.
All three were covered. And so Gardner had nothing left to do with the football but scramble.
Part of this relates back to point 1: the two-back set. Michigan left seven players, including a tight end and running back, in to block on that third-down play — an outcome forced by the line’s issues. But with a QB like Gardner, who can ad-lib in the pocket, and with an offense that has had little success hitting on deep balls, the Wolverines have to provide Gardner with an out.
Usually, that’s going to be the running back releasing out of the backfield, but it easily could have been a tight end on this particular play. The point is: Michigan is boxing itself in on pass patterns, rather than giving Gardner an easy out. Even picking up two or three yards is preferable to Gardner taking a sack or throwing deep into double coverage.
Why aren’t those options on the table?
We’ll see if Borges enacts any changes this week against Northwestern or before the season concludes. If not, well … consider my resume on the table for the job, Devin.