Michigan Football: Why Denard Robinson Needs to Play Under Center More Often

Adam Jacobi@Adam_JacobiBig Ten Football Lead WriterSeptember 14, 2012

September 10, 2011; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson (16) under center David Molk (50) during the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE
Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

The notion of Denard Robinson passing the football is cringe-worthy, right? The examples of Robinson heaving a dead duck into the general vicinity of a receiver (and two or three defenders) are so numerous that picking one out would only give the false impression that it was an isolated incident.

And yet, as Mike Rothstein pointed out in an ESPN.com article, the notion of Denard Robinson as a purely lousy passer is also a myth. Since offensive coordinator Al Borges (and his offense) came to town, when Robinson is under center, he has been one of the nation's best throwers, period. 

Here's more from Rothstein:

He has been even more effective there under Borges, where he has completed 42-of-62 (67.7 percent), thrown all 12 touchdowns and that one interception with a passer efficiency rating of 209.7. While the sample size is much smaller, consider this -- the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Andrew Luck, had a 169.69 passer efficiency rating last season at Stanford.

Robinson, though, spends much of his time in the shotgun, where he is a more pedestrian 316-of-561 (56.3 percent) in his career with 31 touchdowns, 32 interceptions and a 133.3 pass efficiency rating. Since Borges arrived, his shotgun numbers have dipped to 125-of-247 (50.6 percent) with 11 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and a pass efficiency rating of 118.9.

Now yes, all sorts of caveats need to be brought up here. Putting Denard Robinson under center is as much a situational decision as anything else; if it's 3rd-and-15, you obviously want him in shotgun, and bringing him up to the line probably isn't going to make the play call any more successful. 

Moreover, Rothstein is right: 62 passes over 15 games is a small sample size. It's fewer than the amount of plays Michigan runs per game, and it doesn't allow you to control for down or distance (back to the situational thing). It means teams don't run nearly as much preparation for that aspect of Michigan's offense, and successful defense is every bit as much about preparation as anything else.

That all said, what this clearly shows us is that Michigan's offensive balance is horribly out of whack and for the wrong reasons to boot. There is no good reason for 80 percent of Michigan's passes to come out of the shotgun. Not when there's a 90-point disparity in passer efficiency in favor of under center. That is breathtakingly inefficient, especially when we're looking at an interception percentage of 6.88 percent (that, rest assured, is wildly and horribly bad).

Borges does have a point for why it is Robinson spends so much time in the shotgun, and it's simple: Robinson is a much more productive rusher from the shotgun, and you take away your star player's greatest strength at your own peril. Sure enough, Robinson has 235 rushes from shotgun for 1,366 yards and 15 TDs under Borges, and his under-center rushing workload is anemic by comparison (16 rushes, 54 yards, 4 TDs).

"I don't monitor those numbers like that but I know the under-center play has been pretty productive," Borges said to Rothstein. "He's asked for more under-center plays, but the problem with that is it takes him out a little bit as a runner. So we're hesitant to do too much of that."

But let's take a different look at that. The fact that Robinson has four touchdowns on 16 rushes and 54 yards means that rushing out of this look is more of a goal line decision than anything. So there's often a constraint on the number of yards Robinson can get from those rushes to begin with. Start looking more at under-center rushing opportunities near midfield, and that yardage probably ticks up a bit—especially if defenses are thinking pass on the drop-back and Robinson hits them with a draw.

That said, yes, Borges is right: being under center takes away Robinson's feet. The rush-pass ratio for Robinson in shotgun under Borges is 235-247, or a hair under 50 percent. Under center? 16-62, or a bit over 20 percent.

That's a pretty extreme disparity.

But those are tendencies, not constraints, and coaches can adjust tendencies at will. They don't have to almost exclusively run Robinson out of the shotgun, they just choose to—and the results are pretty self-explanatory.

Similarly, the coaches don't have to call 80 percent of Michigan's passes from that shotgun look, and the results there are self-explanatory as well—they say Michigan isn't using the under-center passing look nearly often enough.

Recall that Borges himself said Robinson has asked for more under center looks. And here's one more tidbit from the ESPN article: 

"That's something that I'm getting more comfortable with," Robinson said. "It's something I got out of there for a little while and now I'm back getting comfortable with it."

The comfort comes from Robinson's high school career, when he took snaps under center around 60 percent of the time in a Wing-T offense and would often run a waggle play from which he would pass. It translated to college when his old coach, Rich Rodriguez, was fired and the school hired Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges.

And now recall that just on Wednesday, we called for more passes with Robinson on the move finding crossing routes instead of standing still and chucking bombs. Robinson moving and throwing toward his side of the field? That is also called a "waggle play."

We're just sayin'.

Denard Robinson has his strengths as a passer. He seriously does. Michigan shouldn't scrap the shotgun look in order to accommodate Robinson's limited range of passing brilliance, but it can't afford to keep ignoring the under center look to such a large degree when the possibility of opening up a potent passing attack is right there waiting.