The art of the jump ball: How Denard Robinson and Michigan's ability to get vertical has saved them
Joseph Tobianski | AnnArbor.com
With 8 seconds remaining and the Michigan football team 16 yards from completing its second fourth-quarter comeback against Notre Dame, there was no Hollywood rah-rah speech. No pep talk. No burst of emotion.
"The biggest thing was how calm everybody was," offensive guard Taylor Lewan said Monday. "Everyone knew what their assignment was, everyone knew what they needed to do."
What they needed to do was score three points, and what they did was go to a play — the only play, maybe — that has worked consistently for Michigan this season.
The jump ball.
Quarterback Denard Robinson tossed the ball up for receiver Roy Roundtree, who fought off tight coverage to come down the game-winning touchdown grab in Michigan's 35-31 win Saturday against Notre Dame.
Joseph Tobianski | AnnArbor.com
It's a play Michigan has executed to perfection this year.
Robinson largely was off against Notre Dame, going 2-of-9 passing in the first half and finishing 11-of-24 after a hot fourth quarter. Still, those 11 completions went for 338 yards, an average of 30.7 yards per catch.
Most effective of all: He was 5-of-6 on jump balls, which have become a weapon this year for Michigan while it tries to discover a running game.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges, who favors the short-passing game of the West Coast offense, said he's changing his mind about the jump ball.
"Way back when I was coaching at Oregon with (current Boise State coach) Chris Peterson, we'd talk about throwing it deep, and I used to always have the philosophy that, if you're going to throw it deep, overthrow him so the ball's not intercepted," Borges said.
"I remember (Peterson) telling me, 'Coach, we've got a couple of guys that can go get it — let us touch it.' And I argued with him. Today, though, he was totally right. ... We wouldn't have won the game if we didn't pull a few of those down."
While Michigan's offense has stalled in almost every other aspect at some point this season, the jump ball has remained effective. No one has benefited more than Junior Hemingway.
When healthy, the senior has proved to be one of the country's best players on jump balls. His 6-foot-1, 222-pound build makes him a difficult matchup for defenses, and his technique is flawless.
“You have to beat the (cornerback) to the highest point first,” Hemingway explained Monday. “If you wait until it comes down too low, he’ll have a chance to high-point it before you do.
“It’s just basically trying to get your body in front of him, or I guess ... I’m kind of big. So I can put a little more body on them. But it’s kind of like getting a rebound in basketball. Just have to position yourself and go up and get it.”
Hemingway was a star high school basketball player in his hometown of Conway, S.C. He played all over the floor and was a gifted rebounder because of his size and lift. He played in the post, despite his 6-1 frame, and mastered the ability to box out.
It's paying dividends now.
Hemingway had three caches for 165 yards and one touchdown against Notre Dame. Two of those grabs came via underthrown balls to which he adjusted, beating the defender to the highest point.
The first came five minutes into the second quarter, when Michigan already trailed 14-0 and had gained just 50 yards on offense. Robinson, with lots of time but no one open, lofted a high, underthrown pass to Hemingway.
The senior put a move on Irish cornerback Gary Gray, who was badly beaten on the play, and hauled in the pass, then lunged into the end zone for a 43-yard gain.
"What happened is, we motioned to a stack alignment and Junior broke clean — but Denard came off the play-fake and didn't see it because (a defender was blocking his view)," Borges said. "Otherwise, he'd probably have hit him down there in stride."
"(Robinson's) not real tall, so some of those issues come up. But he went out a little to his right, and he saw him, and he threw it outside and high and you saw what happened. It isn't how you draw it up. But there's things that happen that you just can't account for."
Later, with Michigan trailing 24-21 late in the fourth quarter, the pair hooked up again in a similar fashion. Hemingway was double covered, but Robinson under threw him — probably the only spot Hemingway would be able to make a play.
It went for 45 yards.
"Would I coach (Robinson) not to make that throw? Probably," Borges said. "But, by the same token, it gave our guy a chance to make a play — and Junior's good at it. And (Robinson) knows Junior's good at it."
Hemingway also had a 77-yarder that set up another score, and now has four catches for 202 yards and one touchdown this year. That's a 50.5 yards per catch average, easily the best in the country. The next closest receiver is Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill at 43.9 yards per catch.
“All summer, we’ve been doing workouts and everything, (and) one thing I noticed about all our receivers — they know how to go and get the ball and attack the ball,” Robinson said Saturday. “Once I threw it up, I knew he was going to come down with it.”
On Saturday, that rapport paid off with a win.
"We knew exactly what we had to do, and we did it," Roundtree said of the last play against Notre Dame. "It's a play we've run a million times, and we have the confidence we can execute it whenever we have to."