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ANN ARBOR — Some could label this season “A.D.” — After Denard.
Yet, given that the offense has been overhauled this season, Drew Dileo says that life without Denard Robinson isn’t exactly a drastic case for the Michigan football team.
“It’s not really a new scheme,” said Dileo, a senior receiver for the Wolverines. “Like I’ve said two or three times before, it’s a little less ‘Denard left, Denard right’ running. It’s a little more pro-style to begin with, but Denard had his own little addition. That’s the base offense Al Borges has been trying to run since he got here, and we’ve responded really well to it.”
But the Wolverines’ new offense is old hat for the program.
The pro-style offense harkens back to another era of Michigan football — a gilded era of sorts. A throwback era.
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Denard Robinson didn’t fit into the spread that Michigan ran. Instead, Borges, the offensive coordinator, tailored the offensive scheme to fit Robinson. Yet when Devin Gardner stepped in for the injured Robinson in the final five games of 2012, Michigan’s offense began its return toward the trend it’s historically known for, that of the pro-style scheme, introduced by Gary Moeller in 1989 as he prepared to succeed Bo Schembechler as head coach.
Over the next decade and a half, it became a hallmark of Michigan football, producing quarterbacks such as Brian Griese, Tom Brady, and Elvis Grbac, and the scheme allowed running backs such as Tim Biakabutuka, Anthony Thomas, and Tyrone Wheatley to flourish in the balanced scheme.
Now, with a rangy quarterback in Gardner and a repaired and healed running back in Fitzgerald Toussaint, Borges is going back to the system that made him an offensive wizard of sorts.
"I'm not a spread coach," Borges told ESPN in 2011. "I've been a pro-style coach forever. But you've got what you've got, and it just so happens we've got one of the most prolific running quarterbacks maybe in the history of this game. In the past, we'd make adjustments to who the quarterback was, but not these kinds of adjustments.”
At previous stops in his career, including Auburn and San Diego State, Borges went with what he knew and continued to refine: a pro-style offense that’s designed to allow the quarterback to work out of the pocket and creates more leeway — and balance — between the number of snaps and passes a quarterback takes and makes, and the number of carries a running back will have during the course of a game.
That offense now belongs to Gardner, who had 1,219 yards passing, threw for 11 touchdowns and a passing efficiency of nearly 62 percent in the final five games of 2012. A.D. — after Denard — it likely won’t be tinkered with and tailored to accentuate one player’s attributes. The key is for the running game, spearheaded by a healthy Toussaint, to take pressure off Gardner and Michigan’s passing game.
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“I think typically when people talk about pro-style quarterbacks, a lot of times they talk about the height,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said prior to the start of preseason camp. “And then when they talk about the running quarterbacks, they talk about how they’ve performed in the [shotgun formation], read-zone, counter, or whatever it might be. But I think Devin has a nice dual-threat capability, because he probably spins the ball a little tighter. I think his height helps him over the line of scrimmage.”
Michigan receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski made a projection for this year’s offense, particularly for its passing game.
“From the standpoint of down-the-field opportunities, you’re going to see that completely increase. We throw the ball deep. Somebody like Jeremy [Gallon] could really benefit from that. You could have three catches for 100 yards in a game the way we throw the football.
“We’re going to attack down the field, we’re going to attack in that big range of 15 to 30 yards, so it creates a lot of opportunities for a lot of guys to create big plays.”
ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit spoke highly of Gardner and his size, and considered the offense that Borges devised in light of having a dynamic player and a unique talent such as Robinson.
“Al Borges, to his credit, did the best that he could in a very, very difficult set of circumstances with Denard Robinson, because Denard will always be hailed and remembered by Michigan fans as being a hero,” Herbstreit said. “Yet when you’re Al Borges and trying to run more of a west coast, pro-style offense, it’s hard to try to make make the spread, running-style quarterback work in your system. But they made good strides and did the best they could.”
Now, Borges is in the final days of fine-tuning that system at Michigan, in his third season in charge of the offense. Last week, he admitted there’s still some tinkering to be done with the offense.
“We still are in the process of shaving it down to people who are going to play in the game, which is going to happen soon,” Borges said. “At which time, you can really start to think about being game-ready. We still have some guys being evaluated. We know some of them now, but there are still a few spots that are out there.
“We’re getting there, but we’re not just there yet."
Herbstreit’s expectation of the offense, A.D., is succinct.
“Michigan’s offense,” the former Ohio State quarterback said, “has a chance to be really, really good.”