One more go-around. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
"I didn't know how far I'd go. I was just telling Kovacs and Taylor last night, in high school I didn't think I was a D-I athlete, so now I'm here and it's like it's all a dream."
It has been a dream. The last three years of Michigan football have in many ways had a fuzzy, half-conscious quality that accompanies our subconscious meanderings during sleep. The events unfolded like always -- games were played, recruits were signed, time marched past minutes into days into years -- but none of it seemed real. The structure was there, but everything that happened was a mix of the unfamiliar and the strange. It was for long stretches a nightmare. Michigan football was, for many years before -- longer than most of us can remember in fact -- a remarkably stable football program. By the time Denard Robinson's showed up on campus Michigan football was in it's darkest depths of losing and irrelevance (the hangover from 3-9). He participated in the fast starts and Big Ten losing streaks of 2009 and 2010. He solidered on opposite the worst defense a modern Wolverine team has ever fielded. And with a little help and a new direction he ushered in the march toward redemption, a triumph in The Game, and a BCS bowl win.
All the while there has been no player that more completely embodies the turmoil, the rapid change, and the schematic shifts of the last three years than Denard Robinson. At first he was a project quarterback. A pure athlete with impure skills, thrown into the fire as a true freshman because at points the offense needed some sort of spark. Even when everything else went wrong, Robinson showed he was capable of things we couldn't fathom with the waking mind.
From there he became the realization of what Rich Rodriguez's offense is capable of. Robinson picked up the torch of Pat White and became a one man highlight reel. With all the roster upheaval, the washouts, and the bad story lines, Robinson was the gold standard of what Rodriguez players could be. A seemingly miscast athlete molded into a one man wrecking crew. Upon Hoke's arrival, Robinson's form shifted again and he became the posterboy for the change back. He was Hoke and Borges' square peg. Too good to ignore, but a challenge to incorporate without stripping away the exhilarating spontaneity that.defined his first two years.
This year, as Robinson readies himself for his final year on campus, things have shifted once more. Now, it is all about Denard the player. The team is stable, the defense is rebuilt, and Michigan is "back" insomuch as people expect Michigan to win -- a far cry from two years ago. It is up to Denard Robinson to put the pieces together and lead the offense past one of the toughest schedules in years when, once again, the goal is clearly defined: Michigan should contend for a Big Ten title.
The dream is almost over, but none of us are ready to wake up from this one. At least not until after the happy ending.
Denard sells himself short. There was little chance that the dreadlocked speedster from Deerfield Beach, Florida would slip past a major college program. He was, most assuredly, a D-I recruit. The only real question that had to be answered was what position would he play?
Robinson had a number of promising BCS caliber offers as a high school senior, but there was little interest in keeping Robinson under center -- a position he had grown to love. His speed and agility were too great, his height and mechanics lacked too much. It seemed clear that Robinson, like so many other high school quarterbacks, would eventually end up moving positions to find his calling elsewhere.
Of course with Michigan missing on its first two quarterback targets in the 2009 class and having absolutely no depth at the position, Robinson was a natural fit for a late commitment to a coach well suited to nurture him into a quarterback. He was the perfect compliment to the precisely drilled sheen of Tate Forcier. While many didn't believe Robinson would ever pan out as a quarterback, the marriage between Rich Rodriguez's offensive philosophy and Denard Robinson's electrifying skill set at least guaranteed two words would be prominently discussed whenever his name came up: what if?
Robinson's first season on campus was closer to vindication for his detractors and skeptics than it was evidence of his viability as a full-time quarterback. Despite making plays like his first collegiate snap, Robinson looked nervous in the passing game which contributed to the one-dimensionality of his deployment in that initial season. When he threw the ball it was often not close, and when he ran it was into the arms of an expecting defense.
He finished that year completing less than half of his 31 pass attempts for fewer than 200 yards. He threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. However, he also nearly willed Michigan to a win over Iowa and rushed for 350 yards and five touchdowns despite it being the most obvious play in the playbook whenever he checked in. The potential was there, but that first year showed the road would be a long one.
That off season the rumors began. Robinson was putting in the time and improving. He was finally grasping the offense and his game was blossoming. No longer was he a Justin Feagin-esque run-first, run-second quarterback. Robinson was making his throws and commanding the offense.
Then the spring game happened. Brian Cook on the development of Robinson:
That said, holy crap. Robinson looks like a quarterback now. A running quarterback with rudimentary passing abilities, but a quarterback. There were zone reads and screens and rollout passes and a number of zippy seams that hit players between the numbers. When the offense broke down, Robinson made the concept of "pursuit angles" humorous. Putting him on the edge, as suggested by the coaches' clinic tea leaves, puts the defense in a bind. His throws were all on a line but they were accurate aside from a couple mediocre bubble screens. There were multiple times where I was thinking "just run why don't youuuu runnnnn" and he zipped a pass in for a first down or touchdown.
Spring games exist in a weird sort of state of limbo between being football and being a heavily controlled practice in which the important things are either completely unseen or readily obfuscated. You don't so much as learn things from spring performances as you get a bunch of information that you can twist and pull to fit what you were already thinking and thus continue to either feel awesome or terrible over the next few months until the season kicks off.
However, even with the "Spring Game Disclaimers Apply" that everyone led off with, it was obvious after that afternoon in April that Robinson was not the same player as before.
The open of the 2010 season was Robinson's moment to finally step forward on a national stage and prove that he was a quarterback and not just an athlete. The first game of 2010 was a masterful performance in which Robinson was nearly perfect against the UConn Huskies. On the day Robinson finished with 186 yards passing and a touchdown after completing 86 percent of his passes. He added 197 yards rushing.
While the UConn game was a confirmation of what many hoped for in the aftermath of the spring game, the next week was where imaginations began to run wild. On a rain-soaked afternoon in South Bend, Denard Robinson put together one of the most impressive performances ever by a Michigan quarterback. He finished the game with 258 yards rushing -- including the longest run in Notre Dame Stadium history...
...and added 244 yards passing and one touchdown. Five-hundred and two yards, a last minute go ahead touchdown drive to reclaim the lead.
The rest of the season would ultimately fail to reach the heights of that Notre Dame game. Robinson would put up 494 yards of offense against the Indiana Hoosiers a few weeks later, but the fact that Michigan needed that much of a dominating effort to keep pace with the hapless Hoosiers was a harbinger of what was to come. The Michigan defense bottomed out and despite Robinson finishing the season with over 2500 passing yards and 1700 rushing yards -- a nearly superhuman feat that kept pace with what Cam Newton was doing en route to winning everything -- Michigan was just 7-6. What came next was the predictable finish to a season full of "last straw" moments: Rich Rodriguez was fired and shortly thereafter, Brady Hoke was introduced as the head coach of Michigan.
The dawning of the age of Brady Hoke as coach of Michigan was supposed to be a refutation of the Rich Rodriguez years and the spread offense that had been in residence in Ann Arbor during the time. However, it was clear when Hoke got to campus that he would need to find a way to contort his system to the talents of his inherited quarterback.
His coordinator, Al Borges, also saw the unique opportunity he was presented with and went about fusing a coherent offensive system that would put more emphasis on the things Borges wanted the offense to do while still allowing Denard Robinson the chance to create big plays. Borges, in the months after taking over the offense, was very clear that he had two main goals in that first year: 1) Develop Denard's talents as a quarterback 2) adjust the system to take advantage of the strengths that Robinson presented.
The early going in 2011 wasn't pretty. The Wolverines won their first six games before a dreadful performance in a loss to Michigan State, but two of those wins came from frantic second half comebacks after poor offensive starts, a the rest were wins against over-match opponents that still included long stretches of poor play by Robinson. His mechanics were spotty at best -- he would often wing the ball downfield off his back foot leading to interceptions --and he didn't always look comfortable in the pocket. The offensive rhythm was stop and go with Borges trying a varied mix of shotgun and I-form plays while still working Devin Gardner into the game with trick plays and gimmicky formations. Robinson's first two months of the season were a return to earth from his previous year, and while the team was winning there were many times that it seemed to happen in spite of him, rather than because of him.
The numbers paint a picture of a quarterback caught in a rough transition. In his first seven games of the 2011 season Robinson completed under 40 percent of his passes twice (37% vs. MSU, 39% vs. EMU), under 50 percent of his passes twice (45% vs. Notre Dame, 47% vs. SDSU), and threw ten interceptions.
The Michigan State debacle and ensuing bye week brought Michigan and its quarterback a chance to regroup, and what happened next was the first sustained period of positive growth Robinson had seen since early in 2010.
Robinson started with efficient games against Purdue and Illinois that didn't net much in total yardage, but showed the quarterback getting more and more settled in his role within the offense. His completion percentage was higher and he was taking what the defense gave him. Those two performances were sandwiched around the Iowa game, an oddity of play calling and execution that saw Michigan revert heavily to its under-center I-form strategy early before going into "oh shit, do something Denard" panic mode in a harried but ultimately unsuccessful comeback.
The final two weeks of the regular season was when Robinson was finally able to put it all together, and do so against two of the conference's better defenses in high profile games. First he went 11 for 18 for 180 yards and two touchdowns against Nebraska while adding another 83 and two touchdowns on the ground. The next week for his encore, Robinson put together arguably his best game since the Notre Dame game from 2010. Robinson only had three incompletions in 17 attempts on his way to 167 yards passing and three touchdowns. On the ground he ran for 170 yards and two more scores, and the Wolverines beat Ohio State for the first time in seven years.
After a full season in the offense it seemed like Robinson had finally began to track back to the heights of 2010.
Of course with these things caveats always apply. In this case that caveat is the atrocious game that Robinson played against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Just 9 of 21 for 117 yards is no way to build off the triumph of a near flawless victory over Ohio State, and the game itself leaves just another pile of evidence which to sort through when we try to figure out just how good Denard Robinson can be, and just how good he will be, in his final year as the quarterback for Michigan.
There are mainly two schools of thought when it comes to what is in store for Denard Robinson in his senior year. The skeptics and the optimists. Bear with me while I lay out a classic false dilemma. Believe me, this logical fallacy has a point.
The first looks at Denard Robinson's career full of inconsistency, his mediocre mechanics as a passer, and the obvious physical limitations and says that while Robinson will have a good season, he is still too turnover prone to put together the kind of dominating season that he has flashed at different points in his career. He simply isn't a true quarterback, and the success he has had through his career has come with the help of clever schemes that simplify things for him and other players bailing him out.
The second looks at Robinson's career and finally sees stability and cohesion around him for the first time. This is the second year under this coaching staff, the defense should be at least above average while the offense is experienced. Robinson finally has a proven running back to play next to (assuming that running back makes it back on the field after his run in with the law). Even the special teams are solid. Given all of this stability added to Robinson's second full off season of work learning the offense -- keeping in mind the last leap in production and understanding Robinson made when entering year two in a system -- and the sky is the limit for what he is able to do running this team in his third year as a starter.
The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. While Robinson looked much better toward the end of last season, the Virginia Tech game looms large in any discussion of progress as it relates to his on field performance. With over a month to prepare, Virginia Tech was able to concoct a defensive system to all but shut down the Michigan offense. Still, the back to back performances Robinson put together to end the regular season lend confidence to the idea that Robinson is capable of putting together.
All of this leads us back to that false dilemma I laid out earlier. For the past three years -- and arguably well before that -- coaches, fans, and the media have been trying to define Denard Robinson. The terms are all the same: quarterback or athlete, crunch-time performer or choke artist, NFL prospect or position switch candidate. At every turn of his career someone, whether credible or just on some message board somewhere in the dark recesses of the internet, has uttered the words "well maybe we could move him to X" as if he hadn't spent years honing his craft as a quarterback.
The questions will continue well after this season ends. He will enter the draft in 2013 and you can bet that nobody will have much of an idea what he is. That will matter far more than what he can do. I'm just as confused as you are as to why this is the case.
Denard Robinson is a football player, plain and simple. He is capable of more than all but a handful of players in the game today and he might be the single most dangerous weapon on a play to play basis in college football. Sometimes that will backfire. There will be turnovers and missed reads. He will struggle against pressure and sail fade routes well over his receiver's outstretched hands. His detractors will seize those moments as an opportunity to define him. To narrow the definition of Denard Robinson and strike through the word "quarterback". Then three plays later he will leave them speechless.
When I first set out to write this I planned on calling it "Denard Defined", as if running through 3000 words would lead me down the path to true enlightenment not attained by countless beat writers in the years before. Two years ago I started my first Michigan football blog, and a week into the season I wrote what still might be my favorite thing ever. It was about Denard and that Notre Dame game.
Denard Robinson might not match the robot like consistency of Chad Henne. He may struggle later in the year as defenses begin to devise new ways to attack him. He may even wear down under the burden of 20-30 carries a game. But as long as we have Denard Robinson lining up in the backfield, I will have a hard time keeping my expectations in check. I don't want to be realistic anymore. I want to be a kid again, and watch football with the sense of awe and wonderment that I had as a ten year old. Every bit of reason tells me that we can't possibly expect so much from an undersized sophomore quarterback on his third start.
Denard Robinson doesn't care what logic and reason dictate. He is just going to keep doing what he does, scoring jaw-dropping touchdowns, breaking records, being a leader for this team, and grinning the whole time.
It is two years later and I'm nowhere close to figuring him out. The one thing I know for sure is that I don't want to wake up from this dream. Not yet.