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Posted on Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

The evolution of Michigan football QB Denard Robinson: He's learning to mix the pass and run

By Nick Baumgardner


Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson rushed for 55 yards against Iowa, and 19 of those came on a fourth-quarter run.

Melanie Maxwell |

At times this season, Denard Robinson has looked like a square peg attempting to slip into a round hole.

Michigan's polarizing quarterback has had his ups (ask Notre Dame) and his downs (12 interceptions, 53 percent completion rate) as he’s transformed from Rich Rodriguez's spread-option attack into offensive coordinator Al Borges' pro-style set.

There have been growing pains, no doubt.

But there's something that might alleviate a few of those growth stunts.

Simply put, Denard needs to start resembling Denard again.

"There has to be a portion of your offense where improv is involved," Borges said earlier this week. "The greatest quarterbacks ever are guys that can buy time to make that third play. Making that third play where the guy is covered and they create something.

"Denard is as capable of doing that as anyone I've ever coached."

During last week's 24-16 loss at Iowa, Robinson went 17-for-37 through the air for 197 yards, two scores and an interception. He also ran 12 times for 55 yards.


Denard Robinson passed for 197 yards and two touchdowns against Iowa.

Melanie Maxwell |

Though he did fall victim to a few early dropped passes, Robinson once again struggled with passing accuracy, notably on several deep throws in the Wolverines' final series.

Additionally, his back-to-back turnovers on Michigan's final two drives of the first half proved costly in a game that came down to one possession.

But perhaps more glaring was how ordinary he looked running the football.

Outside of one 19-yard scamper in the second half, Robinson seemed to lack the usual burst and elusiveness that's made him one of college football's most electric offensive performers with 2,933 career rushing yards and 4,375 passing yards.

Michigan's pretty much made it clear at this point in the season: Robinson's not going to sit exclusively in the shotgun and run zone-reads.

But that doesn't mean they want him just standing in the pocket, either.

"Any play-caller, whether they want to admit it or not, is going to call five to seven plays where there's going to be coverage," Borges says. "You call too many of those and you've called a bad game, but it happens.


Come back to at noon Thursday for a live chat with Kyle Meinke. He'll recap the Wolverines' loss at Iowa, discuss news that emerged this week and preview the game against Illinois on Saturday.
"What happens on those five plays when there's nobody open is that your quarterback has to create."

Few people in college football create better than Robinson.

Borges pointed to Robinson’s first passing touchdown Saturday, a 5-yard throw to Fitz Toussaint in the first quarter, as a perfect example.

The play-action pass seemed to be sniffed out by Iowa from the get-go, as the Hawkeyes picked up on fullback Stephen Hopkins out of the backfield and blanketed the rest of Michigan’s receivers in the end zone, leaving Robinson with two options.

He could run, or buy enough time with his feet for one of his targets to get free.

He chose the latter, and eventually, Toussaint broke away from the coverage and Robinson found him for a wide-open score.

“There was nobody open,” Borges said of the play. “But he bought enough time to let people move around, and you can't cover them forever, I don't care who you are.

“Fitz broke free, and we completed the pass.”

As far as Robinson’s run game is concerned, Borges says a balance has to be found. There’s a time to run, and a time to throw, Borges says. When no one’s open, Michigan wants its fastest player to tuck the ball and go.

But when receivers break free, Robinson is expected to find them.

And if this balance is ever found, the Wolverines believe they’ll have a nearly indefensible quarterback.

"Steve Young, for example, became a great, great player, but he became a great passer and a great quarterback when he found where that balance was,” Borges said. “I think even Steve would tell you early in his career he probably ran more than he should have.”

Earlier this week, Hoke said he felt Robinson grew as a quarterback in the loss at Iowa.

Borges doesn’t seem close to giving up the fight either.

How long that may take, though, is anyone’s guess.

“That’s growth, man,” Borges said. “That’s learning how to play the position.

“He’s not unlike any other quarterback I’ve had in similar situations.”

Nick Baumgardner covers Michigan basketball for He can be reached at 734-623-2514, by email at and followed on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.



Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 10:20 p.m.

That's interesting, " He's learning to mix the pass and run". Last year: Pass - 2500+ yards ( 70% ) and Run - 1700+. Led the Nation in that mix, and the only QB in NCAA history to accomplish this feat. Yeah...DR's learning something this year, but it's not how to mix the pass and run. With stats like that last year, just think, DR and the rest of the team a year older and more experienced, a much improved defense and a weaker BT, he and the offense could/should be dominating this year. This kid should be in the Heisman hunt this year, the team 9-0 to date and a chance to compete for the BTC. The coaches need to execute a viable Game Plan and quit using game time to work on a project ( Hint: IT'S NOT WORKING ). "YOU PLAY TO WIN THE don't play to just play...YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!"


Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 8:08 p.m.

This is silly. Denard ran for only 55 yards and with 197 yards passing that's a total of 252 yards total offense. Last year he had games of over 500 yeards total offense and he could have had one against Iowa but his coaches had him afraid to run. With improvment like this we go 0-3 the last 3 games and finish with 7 wins like last year. That will be an amazing feat considering the defense has improved dramatically.


Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 5:38 p.m.

Michigan will not win another game the rest of the year. If DR is the quarterback next year the record will be 6-6 or 7-5. I like DR, but he is not a quarterback. I cringe every time I think about the Alabama game next year. That will be a butt kickin like UM has not seen in years. DR is struggling against average defenses. Imagine how bad it will be against Nebraska and OSU. In the off season they need to make DR into a slot receiver. UM is going to be average until Shane Morris gets in and gets some experience.


Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 4:49 p.m.

Sorry but this is not accurate. DR is a great kid, as every knows and agrees with, but he is not evolving into a better thrower. His passes right now are no better than they were earlier in the year or even last season. He overthrows 7 out of 10 passes of more than 20 yards and underthrows the other three. He NEVER hits a receiver in stride on longer routes. He is effective on quick slants but unfortunately Borges refuses to use those passes more than once or twice a game. If Denard hits only one of those long passes last week UM wins because a FG at the end wins it.

Pete Warburton

Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 4:41 p.m.

Dennard is not improving because he is injured...If the coaching staff continues to play him in his present condition his teammates will lose confidence in him . He will lose self confidence and nrver improve.


Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 4:14 p.m.

Nice article, Nick. I think as soon as DR can get some touch on his throws, he will be a scary good QB. Big question is if that's possible, and to try to figure out why he has regressed as a thrower this year. I think it makes a football TEAM better when the QB doesn't pick up and run every second, like last 2 years, (think about Tate and the success he had early in his career with his throws), but defenses don't respect DR's throwing so they don't have to cover them as much as they blitz him and clog his lanes.


Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 3:54 p.m.

Our defense is much improved this year... But... Our offense sucks really bad. Can we call Rich Rod in to run the offense. Denard was amazing last year running Rich rod's offense, it would have been even better this year. i wish they would have brought Jeff Casteel with him from West Virginia to be defensive coordinator we would definitely be defending National Champions. Texas paid Will Muschamp $900,000 a year to be defensive coordinator. Michigan offered Casteel $265,000 and no contract. The richest University in the world can't pay more than that... can't a University as great as U of M get both? Last year we had 700 yards against a good Illinois team. we will be lucky to get 300 this year, this is bologna...


Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 7:46 p.m.

You must cut and paste from one old commentary to the next because I keep rereading the same text, NO MATTER WHAT THE STORY! I give you credit here, the last line about 700 yeards vs IL last is new. Congrats. The game was played in the Big House. If last year's offense was so good, how come we only scored 1 TD against OSU last year or 14 points in the Gator Bowl? I could go on, but I made my point.


Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 1:36 p.m.

seriously D rob is just a kid playing a game y does everyone forget that...he alone has made watching michigan football great again. ya hes had problems with different things who hasnt. i enjoy watching him, he truly is the most exciting player in college hands down. he needs to get comfortable with himself and stop worrying to pass TAKE WHAT THE DEFENSE GIVES U


Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 1:20 p.m.

1st down- It is understandable that he is in a learning process right now because he is like a freshman learning how to throw and read D's, but to say he is not a bad passer is just rediculous! He is a horrible passer. That does not mean he cant be affective by running and throwing quick bubble screens. Lets be honest here, has he completed in his 3 years one pass in stride to a receiver down field more than 25 yards? NO. I mean sometimes with these things you can say well maybe I would have to look at all of the games he played. The only passes he has made down field have been jump balls or yards after catch by a receiver that caught it about 15 or 20 yards away. He is very inaccurate (oh wait except for when he uses proper mechanics which is about 30% of the time). I agree that I think he will improve dramatically or "get it" from this year to next. The problem for him is that if Devin gets it more then he will be a better passer sitting on the sideline. At this level you simply can not have a QB that can not throw the ball. To put in a different light. If Denard made 50% of his deep throws to guys in stride (or atleast gave them a chance and did not over throw them by 25-30 yards) Michigan would be undefeated right now. If you take away half of his rediculous picks Michigan would be 9-0. The come back will be "well if he was not in there that Mich. would be 2-7". Question whats the difference between Denard and say Troy Woolfolk when it comes to passing? I bet Troy knows how to read a D better than Denard! With all of this said, it does not mean Denard should not be the quarterback!!! It means that Al is failing at his play calling during games. He is putting Denard in a position to fail not succeed. With Denard you have to run 25-30 run plays with him involved (option read), to open up the passing game. That is how he was successful last year at throwing because safeties would cheat so bad that they would get burnt on short


Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 12:34 p.m.

Evolution is the key word. It is a process and one such that Denard has bought into it. Each play in each game should teach him valuable experience. Now that we have only three more games to play, we can only hope that Denard continues to improve. Hopefully, studying a lot of film will enable Denard and Borges to make the adjustments needed to show improvement. We shall see more on Saturday at IL. Go Blue!

1st Down

Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 11:23 a.m.

Denard looked good on that last drive...when he doesnt think too much and just steps in to his throws, he is not a bad passer... sometimes it seems like he gets distracted knowing that running is an option and thinks too much and ignores his mechanics...also last year, his mechanics were not a fundamental part of the offense...he would just run around and play playground ball until someone got open... different story this year... Big Ten defenses know how to defend him with a "spy" and holding contain on the outside... so Denard is forced to throw... he will get it down eventually


Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 3:55 p.m.

Our defense is much improved this year... But... Our offense sucks really bad. Can we call Rich Rod in to run the offense. Denard was amazing last year running Rich rod's offense, it would have been even better this year. i wish they would have brought Jeff Casteel with him from West Virginia to be defensive coordinator we would definitely be defending National Champions. Texas paid Will Muschamp $900,000 a year to be defensive coordinator. Michigan offered Casteel $265,000 and no contract. The richest University in the world can't pay more than that... can't a University as great as U of M get both? Al Borges better pull his head out of his derriere and start running the spread option running oriented option now!!! Last year we had 700 yards against a good Illinois team. we will be lucky to get 300 this year, this is bologna...


Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 2:06 p.m.

@1st Down -- +1 on the "thinking too much" idea ... I share your theory. I think Borges is right to coach *some* patience to allow receivers to open. But there'll be times when they just aren't ... and that's when the "improv" comes into play. I think I've heard Borges talk about the QB role consisting of three "beats" ... with Denard mentally counting off one, two, three as he looks for his receivers and throws. Last year it was one beat and run. Borges is trying to coach a little patience into Denard. He's taken that just a tad far and he's hesitating ... he's thinking too much ... so now Borges is pulling him back -- give the play proper time to develop, but if it's not there, then improv and run.


Thu, Nov 10, 2011 : 12:52 p.m.

That last drive was up tempo. That is what the personnel on this offense are use to and built for.