Michigan's offense hopes to head downhill

Among the many burning questions in Ann Arbor is this: What will Michigan's offense look like in the 2011 season?

Let's start with what the Wolverines' won't look like.

"Our offense is not zone read or spread," offensive coordinator Al Borges said, "but we’ll do some of that stuff."

Borges envisions Michigan's quarterbacks lining up under center about half the time, perhaps a little more than half. The rest of the time, they'll line up in the shotgun. In the shotgun, Michigan will use two running backs about half the time and one back or no backs the other half the time.

But before you think you have it all figured out, read this.

"Schematically, we’re blowing everything up and starting over again," Borges said. "We’re still going to gear everything we do offensively to the skills of the people that are doing it, in particular the quarterback. Are we going to look just like we did at San Diego State? Probably not.

"We may in three or four years. We'll see how this thing evolves."

So how should we characterize the new Michigan offense? Is it a West Coast scheme? Borges is a disciple of Bill Walsh, known as the godfather of the West Coast offense, and references the legendary coach when talking shop. Is it a pro-style offense? It looks that way at times, but most NFL offenses don't operate from the shotgun half the time.

One word often associated with Borges' offenses is downhill, a term he doesn't dispute.

"That's a good description," he said. "We still run around the ends sometimes or at least try to, but we're more of a downhill, power offense type team. A portion of our offense is get in a three-point stance, line the tailback up and come off and hit people in the mouth."

Those words likely will warm the hearts of longtime Michigan fans accustomed to watching power offenses from the Maize and Blue. Borges also is sending a message to Michigan's running backs, a group that, if if things go well, will see a much more enhanced role in the offense.

The Wolverines backs were overshadowed by quarterback Denard Robinson last season. Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw combined for 1,003 rush yards and 14 touchdowns, but their combined carries total of 211 still lingered well behind Robinson's 256.

Although Borges recognizes Robinson's incredible rushing skills, he has made it a priority to reduce the number of hits the quarterback takes. If Robinson wants to match his record-setting rushing yards total (1,702) from 2010, he'll need to do so in far fewer carries.

"We're going to challenge that group to respond," Borges said of the running backs. "For them, this is a golden opportunity. They get to do something a lot of them probably did in high school, run downhill and take the ball from under center."

Robinson also will be taking more snaps from under center, one of several adjustments for a guy who fit perfectly into Rich Rodriguez's spread offense.

"He’ll be fine because he has aspirations of playing next-level football and he’s not going to unless he learns how to do this, it’s that simple," Borges said. "That goes for all of the quarterbacks. If they want to play next-level football, they’re going to learn how to take a snap. That’s the biggest complaint coming out of the pros right now because every NFL team lines up under center."

Immersed in San Diego State's season last fall, Borges only saw highlights from Michigan, most of which showed Robinson sprinting down the field with the ball. But after Borges took a closer look at his new team, Robinson's passing skills stood out.

Robinson completed 62.5 percent of his passes despite some struggles down the stretch.

"He is a better passer than I would have ever thought," Borges said. "We're going to try to develop that a little bit more. I'm not saying he’s going to be throwing 50 passes a game. That's not our goal. But it's nice to know he can make the throws. Because he’s got a good arm. He does stuff that's very attractive to me."