Michigan football offensive coordinator Al Borges discusses his philosophy on player development
Melanie Maxwell I AnnArbor.com
Then-sophomore Fitz Toussaint had a strong spring camp last year, standing out among a deep stable of Michigan football tailbacks. He eventually won the job in the fall and rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
Then-redshirt freshman Jake Ryan did the same at linebacker. He was an unknown entering spring camp, but emerged as a leader to start on the strong side. He won that job in the fall and started every game.
See a pattern?
Jobs aren't won in the spring — at least, not at Michigan, and not with this staff. Coach Brady Hoke craves competition and seeks it wherever possible. It keeps his team sharp and combats complacency.
But it's no coincidence that those who go on to win jobs often do so after strong springs. That's especially true of the younger guys, who benefit from the emphasis on player development that marks this time of year.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges peeled back the curtains a bit on his philosophy of player development last week. It includes two key concepts that he refers to as "body learning" and "functional intelligence."
Body learning essentially is the physical process of learning a position and the playbook. For as much as Borges values the "mental reps" earned by reserves, nothing can replace the real thing.
"There's nothing like doing," Borges said. "I'm a big believer in 'body learning.' Just physically going through the trial-and-error part of it so you can fix the problem yourself. Mental reps are great, and you have to take them, but the 'body learning' is really important."
That's what makes this time of year so integral for reserves, because it perhaps is their best chance to do. The Wolverines don't have to devote their resources to installing a game plan or keeping the regulars well-oiled, so those second- and third-stringers get a chance to show their stuff.
Some have capitalized. Reserve, such as tailback Thomas Rawls, receiver Jerald Robinson, quarterback Russell Bellomy and even walk-on offensive lineman Joey Burzynski have received more snaps than they did last fall, and have drawn the attention of coaches.
Michigan also has identified some up-and-comers on the offensive line, going back to the the Sugar Bowl workouts. While the Wolverines rested their starters, players such as Chris Bryant, Elliott Mealer and Burzynski stepped in and proved themselves.
Now, one of those three likely will start at left guard next season.
"Other than individual drills, you just don't get a lot of practical application of the offense (for reserves during the season)," Borges said. "Whereas when you get into bowl practices, you have enough time to go back and look at those kids running your offense, not one off cards (in scout team).
"Those reps, running our offense, for those kids are very valuable. It's almost like having a second spring football."
Although "body learning" is at the crux of a player's development, Borges said it must be supplemented by "functional intelligence."
"Functional intelligence is the ability to transfer what you learn in the film room, on the chalkboard or in the walk-throughs and practically apply it to the game," Borges said. "It's irrelevant what your IQ is when you take a test if, when it comes time to execute the responsibility, you're not able to do it."
Borges said his players have exhibited a better "functional intelligence" now that they're in the second year of his spread-West Coast offense. They have one more week to apply those lessons before camp adjourns until August.
The true test comes Saturday, when the Wolverines put all those reps to work in their annual spring game at Michigan Stadium. It kicks off at noon and is free to the public (although donations are being collected for C.S. Mott's Children Hospital).
"That’s when it’s really the most critical, is when the lights go on," Borges said. "Sometimes, guys in practice are better than they are when it really counts.
"We’re going to find out who the Main Street players are. Or at least we hope to.”