ANN ARBOR, MI - NOVEMBER 26: Denard Robinson #16 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates with students after beating Ohio State 40-34 at Michigan Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
2012 Michigan Season Preview* Special Teams
* Running Backs
* WRs and TEs
* Defensive Line
* Offensive Line
Pure speed, as the saying goes, serves as college football's ultimate game changer. Possessing the physical talent to score on any given play, whether as a receiver running free, a corner jumping a route or a returner taking it the distance, adds a subtle but valuable dimension to any roster in America.
Because more often than not it is these athletically-gifted plays that end up making all the difference in the end. The hulking 6'5", 284 lb. five-star lineman may not have been remotely close to scooping up that crucial fumble recovery for a touchdown, but his 6'2", 245 lb. backup absolutely could have in the same situation. The only difference here is that until the lowly backup actually gets to play, nobody will ever be able to see what he's fully capable of. You just need a chance.
And in many ways, that's exactly what Denard Robinson brings to the table. After years and years of being torched by speed rushers both on the ground and through the air, a trend that culminated with those two brutal losses to [redacted] and [redacted] in 2007, it almost felt as if the Wolverines had no feasible way of stopping any variation of the option because they literally had no idea how to run it themselves.
The Rich Rod era though, along with a bevy of other things that hardly matter now, brought with it the radical shift Michigan football so desperately needed scheme-wise at the time (at least in this writer's opinion). Robinson was simply one of his coach's shiny new toys, and without the wonky play-calling and lack of real options at the position it would have been hard to believe D-Rob normally could have gotten on the field so soon. But oh boy are we glad he did.
There was a time not too long ago when the iconic image of a Michigan quarterback brought to mind a 6'5" lean, clean-shaven white kid with a strong arm and slow feet. Dual threat options were never explored, for one, because the program was hauling in college-ready pocket passers and elite runners left and right for such a long time. Denard's uniqueness is defined by that very fact: He's a player that Michigan never would have recruited a decade or two ago, and still never would have seen the light of day at quarterback even if he signed with the Wolverines anyway.
Pretty soon the school's record books will be lined with Robinson's name, and deservedly so. He's the single most exciting player in college football, he touches the ball on virtually every offensive play, and he happens to play in a Michigan uniform. So, uh, where will you be this season?
Starter: Denard Robinson (Sr.) 6'0'' 197lbs
The one we call Shoelace, likely grinning ear to ear at this very second, may just be football bi-polar. To opponents, he's hands-down the biggest pest on the field, an annoyance in the highest degree. To anyone he's ever met or people who have caught his infectious smile on television, the 21-year-old Robinson probably came off as the nicest kid in America. Bi-polar it is.
The thing is, as U of M supporters it's interesting to take a step back and examine how truly despised Denard actually is by rival programs. Michigan State fans, maybe predictably so after the last two seasons, have expressed nothing but disdain both in public and to me personally in recent years about Denard's ability as a player. Ditto for anyone from that Ohio territory as well. And even though Notre Dame is still dealing with blurred visions of Tate Forcier shucking and jiving, Brian Kelly's program probably doesn't have very many fond things to say about Denard either.
So maybe the hatred makes sense when you think about it. Defensive coordinators are wising up to dual threat quarterbacks these days, but there's no denying that Robinson is an absolutely pain in the ass to prepare for leading up to a big game, and arguably the biggest pain of all. He's also likely the only thing defensive players are thinking about before a Big House trip, seeing as how it's hard to imagine every last guy doesn't want to rip his head off after watching him dance around on tape for five days. I'd also like to think that at least one crazy opponent went with the retro picture into a dart board idea to quell his D-Rob night terrors, but maybe that's going too far.
People love to get hung up on Robinson's passing skills, and how he supposedly cannot under any circumstances play quarterback at the next level. Fair assessment or not (come on, they let Georgia's D.J. Shockley do it!), that simply doesn't matter to anyone right now in the college game, a place where accuracy, timing and line reads can each be lessened significantly by athleticism and pure speed in a time of desperation.
Robinson's deficiencies, namely that lovely tendency to hurl free-for-all passes off his back foot into triple coverage, are ever-present but still improving under Borges. And honestly, we should all know the drill by now: Elite runner, moderately bone-headed passer with good intentions, unquestioned heart.
It's important to keep in mind that the best version of Denard Robinson is still going to come flying at us in 2012, and that even if he takes only a minimal step as a passer the Wolverines are still in perfectly good shape. The highlight-reel runs and Houdini-like escapes are coming soon, don't you fret one bit. But be sure to enjoy this once-in-a-decade athlete while he's still in Ann Arbor, fellow Michigan fans. Players like this don't come around very often.
Things are shaping up to be quite interesting for the backup duo of Gardner and Bellomy this year in Hoke's offense. Gardner remains next in line to assume the starting job should anything happen to Robinson, but will continue to take double duty in practice at both quarterback and receiver. His 6'4" frame and undeniable talent with the ball in his hands made the temporary switch a logical move. And while Borges has had success in the past with similar players, this still raises questions about how ready Gardner will actually be to lead the offense in case of an emergency.
Once viewed as Michigan's next big thing, the Inkster High grad has done a masterful job of underwhelming on a number of occasions (Spring Game(s)) over his career. It's common knowledge that Robinson routinely leaves games for a handful of plays or series' here and there for minor woes, and the Wolverines wouldn't be willing to compromise Gardner's preparedness unless they truly planned to unleash him out wide this season.
Not to be outdone by his two versatile teammates, Bellomy, a redshirt freshman out of Texas, could be in line for a decent amount of playing time if an injury pops up as the No. 3 guy. Though the youngster made an interesting comment to The Detroit News about wanting to remain hush-hush on whether he'd see time at a second position this year, the kid flashed a great deal of potential in Michigan's Spring Game and drew all rave reviews. He stands now as the most traditional of the three quarterbacks with the most consistent arm, in addition to also featuring a deceptive amount of quickness to make plays in the open field.
Position Grade: A (Starters: A, Backups: B+)
Denard is the epitome of playmaker, and there may not be a more valuable quarterback in all of college football. In his first year as a starter he flashed his raw skills and took the country by storm despite struggling to adjust as coordinators keyed on his tendencies. Last season he learned how to hone in his abilities and win football games the hard way. And in a system that continues to be tailored to his strengths, there's no reason to believe Robinson can't wrap up his outstanding career with another impressive Heisman-worthy campaign.
With a former top-end talent like Gardner and a high-upside third-stringer like Bellomy each waiting in the wings, the only thing missing here behind Robinson is a player with NFL-level accuracy. We know this unit needs to be quite deep considering the expected workload of Denard this season, but Hoke and company should be in very good hands this year under center.