In the aftermath of Michigan’s 30-28 loss at No. 12 Iowa on Saturday night, one question begs to be asked: is it time to expand Denard Robinson’s role?
Now, before I go any further, let me throw out a few disclaimers.
First of all, I understand the need to keep Robinson at quarterback in the event that Tate Forcier gets injured. The last thing any Michigan fan wants is to see third-string quarterback Nick Sheridan under center unless it’s in mop-up duty.
Secondly, I’m not going to question Rich Rodriguez’s decisions. He’s the head coach. I’m not. He’s been with this team day-in and day-out since he was hired. I haven’t. He chose to play Robinson over Forcier at the end of the game and I trust that he knows more than I do. That's why he's paid to make those decisions and I'm not.
Finally, I’m not saying the sky is falling or that we need to make some drastic changes after two losses. I’m merely exploring the possibility of making this team even more explosive.
That aside, let’s take a look.
Denard Robinson came to Michigan from Deerfield Beach, Fla. with a lot of hype, although the hype was more about his track-star speed than about his quarterbacking ability. That’s not to say that he won’t develop into a good quarterback, but at this point, his ability to run is much further ahead of his passing skills.
Through Michigan’s first six games, Robinson is just 7-for-15 for 87 yards and three interceptions.
I don’t think that is an indictment on his abilities as much as it is a reality that he’s not ready to be a collegiate quarterback at this point.
For one, he doesn’t fully know the offense, since he’s only been on campus for a couple of months. Instead of going through his progressions, he’s much more apt to pull it down and run.
Forcier, a fellow freshman, has been able to show some success so far for a couple of reasons.
He has been groomed to be a quarterback for his entire life. He trained under former USC and NFL player Marv Marinovich from the time he was eight years old.
He also has two older brothers who played quarterback, and he enrolled at Michigan in January, giving him a seven-month head start to get acclimated to college football and Michigan weather.
Robinson comes from the talent-rich state of Florida, where he threw for 4,784 yards and 44 touchdowns in three seasons. He also ran for another 1,132 yards and 13 touchdowns.
He was highly recruited by both Florida and Georgia in addition to Michigan. The only difference is that had he gone to either of those schools, he would have undoubtedly been red-shirted this season.
Michigan wasn’t afforded the luxury of red-shirting Robinson following the offseason transfer of Steven Threet and the poor play of junior Nick Sheridan last season.
Robinson arrived in Ann Arbor in time for fall camp and was immediately thrust into action. Instead of getting a full season to learn the offense without burning a year of eligibility, Robinson became Forcier’s backup and change-of-pace option.
On his first touch of his first game, he showed how dangerous he is with his legs, as he fumbled the snap, picked it up, and then scampered 43 yards for a touchdown.
He has scored three rushing touchdowns this season, including one yesterday against Iowa to bring Michigan within two points in the fourth quarter.
The problem is, when he’s in, the defense knows he’s not much of a threat to pass. Just ask Michigan State defensive end Trevor Anderson.
“They did everything we practiced this week,” Anderson said following the game last week, in which Michigan State won 26-20 in overtime. “When they decided to put in Denard Robinson, we knew they were going to run the ball. They couldn’t throw it with him.”
It’s fun to watch Robinson run the ball with the way he jukes and jives his way past tacklers. But while it worked in the first few games of the season, the effectiveness of using Robinson as basically a run-only quarterback diminishes each game.
The more the season goes on, and the more good defenses he faces, the less success he will have when lining up at the quarterback position. It's too predictable.
Yet, he’s too much of a talent to keep on the sidelines.
Therefore, it seems that Rodriguez needs to find some new ways to use Robinson.
I’m not lobbying to completely move him to running back or receiver. But I am saying that either instead or in addition to giving him one or two drives per game at quarterback, why not give him five to 10 plays a game in various positions?
Just think of the possibilities. Line him up in the slot and get him the ball on a bubble screen or quick pass. Bring him in motion and run an end-around or reverse. Put him in the backfield and run the option or even the team's staple, the zone read.
Rodriguez’s offense is predicated on getting the ball into the hands of playmakers in space, so why not find more ways to get Robinson on the field?
Of course the risk is Robinson getting injured, which would leave Michigan just an injury to Forcier away from being forced to use Sheridan as its quarterback. Nothing against Sheridan, but as we saw last season, he’s not the right guy for this offense.
However, I don’t think that argument holds much weight, since Robinson takes hits every time he’s on the field anyway when he runs the ball.
At the very least, getting him on the field in various positions makes the offense far less predictable. By this time, opponents are well aware of Robinson’s talents, and to see him in the slot or in the backfield would surely add a layer of unpredictability and give opponents more to prepare for.
Robinson could be headed for that type of role in the years to come anyway, since Michigan has five-star quarterback Devin Gardner locked up in its 2010 recruiting class.
Gardner, rated as the nation’s No. 1 quarterback by Rivals and No. 4 by Scout, has the size (6’4”, 195), arm (1,900 passing yards and 26 touchdowns last season), and running ability (1,400 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns last season) to be the ideal quarterback for Rodriguez’s spread-option system.
He’s drawn comparisons to Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, but with a better arm. Elite 11 camp director Greg Biggins compared Gardner to Vince Young, Tim Tebow, Juice Williams and Dennis Dixon at the same stage in their development.
So with that in mind, as well as the solid play of Forcier (even with his struggles at Iowa), I think it is time to expand Robinson’s role beyond that of just quarterback.
Ask yourself this: Is it better to keep him on the sidelines for all but one or two series a game in an effort to keep him healthy? Or would it be more valuable to get another exciting and proven playmaker on the field to make the offense even more difficult to defend?
I vote the latter, and it should begin this Saturday.
With Delaware State, from the Football Championship Subdivision, bringing its 1-3 record to Ann Arbor, Michigan doesn’t have to worry about needing a perfect game to win.
Delaware State has lost to Florida A&M, Delaware and Bethune-Cookman, and averages just 14 points per game.
What better time to get Robinson on the field, not only at quarterback in passing situations, but also in various positions to get the ball in his hands in space?
It would give Michigan a chance to practice some of those plays that expand the playbook even more, but it also would give the following week’s opponent, Penn State, more looks to prepare for.
Not only would they know that when Robinson is lined up at quarterback he’s going to run. They would also be wary of No. 16’s presence in the slot or in the backfield.
Slot receiver Kelvin Grady is talented, but he hasn’t proven the elusiveness that Robinson has shown with the ball. Likewise, running backs Carlos Brown, Brandon Minor and Michael Shaw are all good backs, but they don’t have the speed and agility of Robinson.
So while Grady, Brown, Minor and Shaw should get the majority of the plays at their respective positions, Robinson should get a chance to change things up.
In my opinion the reward outweighs the risk and Michigan would be better off for it.
But then again, I’m not a coach, and I have to trust that the coaching staff knows what it’s doing.
With a 4-2 record, Michigan gets a much-needed return to the friendly confines of the Big House. An FCS opponent allows this young team a chance to work on some new things and get its confidence back before delving into the remainder of the Big Ten schedule.
And we’ll see if Rodriguez has any plans up his sleeve to expand Robinson’s role.
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