At his weekly press conference, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges opened up about his coaching philosophy and the two more important developments in a young player's progress.
One comes from repetition in practice, getting a physical feel for the way the offense is supposed to be executed. Borges calls it "body learning" the position, and sometimes, especially when the Wolverines are in the middle of the season, it's difficult to give younger players a chance to do it.
"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 why the last few months have been crucial. Not only do the coaches take the opportunity that spring practice presents to allow second- and third-string players to get tons of reps, but those players also received a lot of focus during Michigan's bowl preparation.
The spring practice sessions and bowl prep have helped several offensive linemen who are now vying for playing time next fall. Borges pointed to fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer and redshirt sophomore Joey Burzynski, who are battling for the nod at left guard, as two players who have benefited the most.
"Playing in a bowl game was a big advantage," Borges said. "When you play in a bowl game, particularly one that is played in January, you get extra practices, and that helps everybody, the least of which are not the offensive linemen, particularly the kids that aren't playing much, because you don't want to beat up the kids that are. That bowl practice was invaluable to some of those young players.
"[Offensive line coach] Darrell [Funk] had a chance to work with Elliott and Joey and the rest. Other than individual drills, you just don't get a lot of practical application of the offense, 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."
The "body learning" aspect of a player's progress comes on the practice field. The other crucial development that Borges discussed happens away from the field entirely. Borges calls it "functional intelligence."
"Functional intelligence is the ability to transfer what you learn in the film room, on the chalkboard or in the walkthroughs and practically apply it to the game," Borges said. "It's irrelevant what your I.Q. is when you take a test if, when it comes time to execute the responsibility, you're not able to do it."
Now in his second year in the program, Borges sees a better understanding of this aspect, especially from underclassmen.
He pointed to sophomore running back Thomas Rawls, a potential back up for Fitzgerald Toussaint, as a player who is picking up the analytical part of the game.
"He understands better now," Borges said. "He is still going through some growing pains, but it's not because he doesn't know the schemes.
"He's got some of the same issues Fitz had last spring, but he's starting to see the line of scrimmage better and make better cuts and not run into bodies. Coming out of high school, the power backs tend to want to just run straight ahead and over guys, and the scat backs tend to want to juke everyone and never get up the field. The perfect back is someone in between who understands when to use their power and when to juke. Thomas has gotten to a point where he's not simply trying to run over everyone every time he gets the ball."
On Toussaint: A year ago, the Wolverines had no clear-cut starting running back. After Toussaint's emergence in the second half of the season, Borges has no problem calling him the No. 1 back.
And Toussaint is continuing to improve his game.
"Running, blocking, receiving - he's getting better in every area. "He's become more complete, and that was our goal coming in. Still not a finished product. None of them are. As a coach, you're looking for a group of guys that you have complete confidence in their ability to do what you want them to in a game. And, if we don't, we're not going to put you in the game. He's just about reached that point.
"His biggest issue, and I've said it before, was his vision a year ago. But that has gone away. I've seen no trace of that being a problem. He had to improve his protection, just understanding who to get leverage on a guy. We're throwing him more balls than we have. He's a prideful kid, and football is important to him, so those types of kids tend to get better."
On Ricky Barnum: A lot of the offensive line's progress rests on the shoulders of fifth-year senior Ricky Barnum, who has been pegged to replace Rimington Award winner David Molk at center.
"A lot of [the line's chemistry] is dictated by the center's ability to be confident in his position," Borges said. "Ricky is still a work in progress, but as he becomes more comfortable in there, it has an infectious affect on the rest of the players. They all kind of take his lead a little bit. He quarterbacks the offensive line. If everyone else is on the same page as him, that chemistry tends to take."