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Breaking down UTSA offensive coordinator Al Borges’ coaching style

UTSA’s new offensive coordinator’s published coaching book provides insight into his approach to guiding an offense.

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UTSA’s offense will be under new management in 2018 after the Roadrunners’ Head Coach Frank Wilson opted to take things in a new direction after UTSA’s offense fell flat towards the end of the 2017 season, ultimately costing the Roadrunners a bowl bid despite finishing the season with six wins to their name. Wilson opted to bring in an offensive veteran in Al Borges, a quarterback-minded play caller with 36 years of coaching experience.

As Borges has coached so many different offenses with differing formations, tendencies, and philosophies, it’s hard to pin down a precise expectation for what he could unveil at UTSA. When Borges coached Auburn to a national championship his offense was mostly built around single-back sets and leaned heavily on the Tigers’ terrific running backs. Borges employed a true spread offense at Michigan to open the field up for his dual-threat quarterbacks. Later in his career Borges began to implement run-pass options and developed a true multiplicity in his offense.

While Borges certainly has the flexibility to create an offense that fits his personnel, his background is firmly planted in the West Coast offense. I picked up a copy of “Coaching the West Coast Quarterback,” a book co-authored by Borges and his brother Keith while the pair were coaching UCLA’s offense in the early 00’s. Here’s what I learned about Borges’ approach to the game.

Play Design

Borges’ play design is all about stretching the field, either vertically or horizontally, to put pressure on an individual receiver. This is a great method to take advantage of the biggest coverage liability on the defense. As an example, if the defense is in cover two with a slow safety covering the play side then Borges may seek to use twin receivers, one of which will run a streak while the other will run a post in an attempt to place a heavy burden on the safety that the offense feels would not be able to cover a widely stretched zone. Additionally, Borges always wants to have two receivers in the quarterback’s field of vision. This allows the quarterback multiple targets without having to adjust his sight to check down from his primary target.

Pre-Snap Read

A staple of the West Coast offense is the pre-snap read. Borges offers an easily-coachable method for quarterbacks to get a sense of what coverage the defense will play before the ball is snapped. Borges’ quarterbacks are to read the “contour” of the secondary and have a strong inclination as to whether the defense is using man or zone coverage and how those assignments will be distributed. The image below gives two examples of different coverage contours. Four players aligned horizontally indicates four deep man coverage, while Diagram 3-10 shows a defense that has the cornerbacks and strong safeties aligned in man coverage with a free safety playing centerfield in the middle of the field.

Diagram 3-9 and 3-10, Coaching the West Coast Quarterback, Borges/Borges

Shifting Route Tree

Many offensive coaches instill a rigid attachment to a pre-defined route tree in order to take any guess work out of the quarterback’s placement of his passes. Borges is much more liberal in how he coaches his wide receivers to get open. Wide receivers are expected to be able to react to the coverage technique employed by the defender. Quarterbacks are expected to be on the same page as those receivers and adjust their throws to match the receivers route alteration. All of this action happens without communication and requires extraordinary chemistry between the quarterback and receiver.

Borges mentions four different corner techniques that receivers should be educated on and know how to exploit.

  • Retreat - The cornerback plays off of the receiver, allowing for a large cushion.
  • Bump - The cornerback will “bump” the receiver in an attempt to alter the receiver’s timing. The corner will then run the route alongside the receiver.
  • Hang - The cornerback comes up on the line of scrimmage to play outside zone.
  • Engage - The cornerback plays aggressive man-to-man coverage and trails the receiver.

The image below shows the expected receiver adjustment to two different corner techniques against an out route. If the corner plays typical retreat technique then the receiver should execute the out-route as usual. If the corner uses bump coverage then the receiver should realize running an out-route is not an option and adjust to a fade route. The quarterback should target 18-22 yards down the field and “drop it in the bucket” over the receiver’s shoulder where only the receiver can reach the ball.

Diagram 3-97 and 3-98, Coaching the West Coast Quarterback, Borges/Borges

Sight Adjustments

One of the most precarious situations for an offense to be in is when the defense sends more blitzing defenders than the offense has bodies with which to protect the passing quarterback. Even in max protection packages the defense will always be able to bring more bodies to the quarterback than the offense can pick up if the defense is aggressive enough. Borges implements a response to these dire situations with something he calls sight adjustments.

Yet again, the intelligence and recognition skills of the receiver will make or break this wrinkle in the offense. Once the quarterback recognizes that the defense appears to be sending more blitzers than the offense has blockers, the unblocked threat should be pointed out by the quarterback. The split end receiver should point to that defender as well to communicate his recognition of the sight adjustment.

If the defender does blitz post-snap then the receiver should run directly into the space vacated by the blitzing defender. If the defender instead drops back into coverage then the route should be ran as originally planned before the pre-snap read. If executed correctly this could turn a potentially disadvantageous situation for the offense into a big play opportunity.

Tight Ends

The tight end operates as the safety blanket in Borges’ offense. Quarterbacks are taught to look for their tight ends in situations where the play breaks down and the quarterback needs to make a safe play that will keep the drive alive by avoiding a turnover or other disastrous outcomes. Several pages of “Coaching the West Coast Quarterback” focuses on coaching tight ends to read coverage and adjust their routes accordingly to get open and make themselves a highly-visible target for the quarterback. It’s a safe bet that Borges will always be on the look for receiving tight ends on the recruiting trail.

Quarterback Traits

I certainly walked away from this book with an impression that Borges prefers a dual-threat quarterback over a traditional pro-style quarterback. Borges often mentions the need to have a quarterback that can escape a collapsing pocket and turn a busted play into a positive one.

In a particularly interesting section of the book, Borges lists out a few common myths that have circulated about the quarterback position. Borges teaches his quarterbacks to keep their knees slightly bent while standing on the balls of their feet while surveying the field in the pocket. This is in contradiction of the usual advice of “standing tall” in the pocket in a rigid, statuesque stance. The quarterback should be able to pivot out of their stance and take off and run at any point.

Borges’ approach to teaching quarterbacks throwing mechanics is also unconventional. While many coaches push their quarterbacks to hold the ball up to their helmet’s earhole and release the ball as high over their head as possible, Borges takes more of a hands-off approach to dictating throwing mechanics.

Borges stresses that footwork and movement in the pocket is paramount to the quarterback’s ability to make a successful throw. Correctly “squaring off” and opening the chest towards the target is much more important than forcing the quarterback to make an uncomfortable delivery intended to maximize throw velocity. Borges wants his quarterbacks to have a quick trigger finger with which to “sling” the ball instead of “pushing” the ball through an unnatural mechanical progression.

It’s important to not read too much into Borges’ insight in this book. While it certainly gives good insight into Borges’ background and philosophy, the book was written 16 years ago, before the most prominent stops in Borges’ coaching career. I would advise against taking anything in the book as gospel or as a guarantee of the approach Borges will take in his time at UTSA.

We have no idea how much input Frank Wilson will have in the direction of the offense or how Borges’ philosophy has changed through the years. With many questions still unanswered, the book does show that Borges is a sharp football mind with a high intelligence and possess an impressive ability to make quarterbacks comfortable in his system. We’ll have to wait until September to truly know what UTSA’s offense will look like in 2018.