If you're looking in from the outside, one of the hardest things to do is project a quarterback competition. I don't care how much you read, who your contacts are, or whether you've played the game before, it's damn near impossible to predict who will win the starting job when two or three guys are neck and neck for the first snaps under center.
But since it's still the "off-season" and we've got too much time on our hands, we're going to do it anyway. We've already given you the case for Denard Robinson and the case for Tate Forcier, but with a little more information it seemed like a good time to start breaking down film. Since all we've really got to go on are the snippets from "Countdown to Kickoff" and the Spring Game footage, well, we're going to use them for evil. Now before we too far into the discussion we should probably lay down some early observations. Tate Forcier and Denard Robinsondid not spend equal time going against the First and Second team defense. Tate saw a lot more time against the Ones than the Twos, but both of them faced the first team defense. Next, Tate was playing with the second team offense, so the line, the receivers, etc... were second team. Denard got the benefit of having the first team offensive line in front of him, which Tate did not. With regard to Devin Gardner, he some time against all three. Additionally, you have to consider that Tate was recovering from throwing shoulder surgery during the spring game so his throws aren't going to have their natural zip.
If there were more telling video available, I'd post it. But there really isn't. You're not going to get a more complete picture of the players watching the video highlights from practice, because the angles are so bad. You can see Denard and Tate progress through their reads a little bit, but not as much. It looks as though the throws are pretty scripted, so it's hard to evaluate their performance (especially since you can't see what's going on past the LOS). Just for giggles, I put the most recent Countdown 22 video of them practicing at the bottom.
It's obvious at this point that even the coaches don't know who's going to start. Forcier's been banged up a bit. Gardner's raw. Denard looks good but isn't battle tested. Then there's the issue of who will be a leader, and no one seems sure about that either.
Still, it's early in practice. When the Spring game was played, the players had several weeks of practice under their belts and were as comfortable in the system as they could be. You'll actually see quite a bit in these clips, but things to look for are pocket poise, decision to throw/run, scrambling with purpose v. scrambling, arm strength (I know, I know - regardless of the above, it is important), accuracy, accuracy on the run, foot speed, lateral quickness, and flat out speed. Now the arm related stuff you have to read in a bit of a "pass" on Forcier, but the foot related things, you can rate those on their merit. I've got the videos in the following order: Devin, Tate, Denard. They're that way because that's the way I uploaded them. I'm make some comments, critiques, etc. after each and I'll look forward to your comments afterwards. If I'm missing something or you think I'm full of it, let me know. Spring game footage is courtesy of MGoVideo, The Big Ten Network, and MGoBlue.com.
All the video and analysis you can handle after the jump.
Devin Gardner's Spring Game Snaps
As I said before, raw. His delivery is wonkier than hell, but man can that kid glide. He really doesn't look like he's running, he's just striding. Actually reminds me of Terrell Pryor in the open field. His mechanics don't seem all that worked out in this video, his delivery point drops and raises depending on the throw. That said he had a couple of beautiful passes including a perfect bomb to Tae Odoms that somehow glanced off Tae's hands. The thing that really gets me excited about Gardner is that he stands in the pocket and doesn't scramble until the pocket has legitimately broken down. He's not panicking and running before he needs to. Sometimes that's a great thing. Other times he needs to learn to bolt like a scared deer, for instance when he's in his own end zone. Overall not a great performance and there's no way he's ready for the starting job, but man oh man is he going to be something special. Please God, let him red shirt.
Tate Forcier's Spring Game Snaps
The first thing that jumps out at you is the irregularity in Tate's fastball. Some throws he's dead on target like a rifle, others the ball is floating like a balloon. No matter what you think of his performance, Tate was obviously not at full speed. Staying on passing, it's pretty obvious that Rodriguez likes to move the pocket with Forcier in. There were a number of times that Tate was rolling to his right to throw, whether on bootlegs or moving pockets. The results weren't great, but that probably has to do with Tate's shoulder, so I'll give him time to heal. But the scrambles to his left.... ugh. He just not capable in this video of throwing off the roll to the left.
In the pocket Tate remains pretty squirrely. He goes into scramble mode within two seconds of planting his back foot, which is very concerning to me. He needs to learn to take a step up into the pocket, rather than immediately going into "AHHHHH GOD! RUN!" mode. Give him plenty of time and he's fine. But put a little pressure on him and he's taking off like he stole something. It's one of those things that Tate's gonna have to work on.
You'll also notice that Tate got more than his fair share of time against the first string defense, which made his day a little harder than Devin or Denard's. Still, the zone read simply isn't there. I think a part of that is gap and assignment responsibililty from Michigan's linebackers (J.B. Fitzgerald in particular), but I also think a good portion of that is the fact that Tate simply isn't as fast as he needs to be to run that play. When Tate kept the ball on the "read" the linebackers and linemen closed in on him very, very quick. When Tate handed it off, there wasn't a lot of gain. I will say that it doesn't look like Tate is having the same troubles diagnosing the DE/LB as he had during the start of his freshman year. I could only count one time that Tate keeping the ball was a clear mistake. Tate's quick enough to improvise on the run, but I think it's highly unlikely we're going to see another Notre Dame type run until Tate's healthy enough to keep the safeties honest and off the line.
Denard Robinson's Spring Game Snaps
The first thing that jumps out at you in this video is holy hell does Robinson have a strong arm. It doesn't matter rolling left or right, there's some serious velocity there. The next thing you notice is that he seems to have developed a much better understanding of the zone read. Maybe it's his speed, maybe its the second time defense screwing it up (Specifically, DE Steve Watson who still seems to be transitioning from TE to DE and learning his reads), maybe whatever, but he's clearly the best of the three quarterbacks running that.
Getting down to it, Denard's pocket awareness was fairly impressive. Caveats about not having a lot of pressure on him, but when he did feel pressure he checked his natural impluse and stood tall until he absolutely had to run or a giant swath of open field openned up in front of him. Even on the 97 yarder, he felt pressure on all sides, including a defender coming up the middle, and delivered a strike (1:28). For the majority of this video he looks poised and under control, things you have to be in order to be a legitimate Big Ten quarterback.
Then there's simply the OMG speed he displays. Watching him simply outrun or juke J.B. Fitzgerald (who actually didn't look that bad in all three clips) and the rest of the team was just stunning. Denard exists on a who 'nother dimension of speed. I'm convinced if he runs counter to the Earth's rotation, he's stop the earth from orbiting. It's obvious that defenders this season are just going to be trying to catch him rather than tackle him.
Overall, the competence Denard displayed in executing the Spring Game offense was staggering compared to his limited playing time during the season. Further, he was clearly the best of the quarterbacks on the field. That said, there's a lot of football to be played and practiced before the first snap on September 4th, and Denard has to continue to show improvement in order to prove that the Spring Game was only a taste of what he's capable of, not the full meal.
Notice on the one below, again, Denard rolling to his left and firing a strike. Awesome.
Based on spring chatter, fall practice so far, Tate's injury status, and what you can see above, I have to believe that Denard is the starter at this point. When Tate is healthy, he's certainly got the chops and the experience to perform at a high level under center. The issue is that if Tate is not 100%, I don't think he can provide the dynamic spark that Denard can. Based on the above videos, Denard is much faster and quicker than Tate and he's throwing the ball better. As a result, he's your presumed starter.
HOWEVA, one quarterback is not going to make it through this year unscathed and both of these kids are going to play, and play a lot. When Tate has been healthy and on the field in fall practice, the word is he's looked pretty darn good. So this is not a case of one guy being a full head and shoulders above the other. It's a case of two division one quarterbacks fighting it out. This is more Henson/Brady than Sheridan/Threet. I'm not saying either guy is Tom Brady, but they're sure as hell not Threet or Sheridan. This is a good problem to have, folks. And you can rest assured that Rodriguez will put the best player on the field come September 4th. You can also rest assured that the guy who's slated at No. 2 is going to get plenty of snaps as well.