The evolution of Michigan football QB Denard Robinson: He's learning to mix the pass and run
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
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.
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
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."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.”