It goes without saying that the 2010 season is make-or-break for Rich Rodriguez and his zone-read spread-n-shred offense. Though good QB play is essential for any offense, the success of Rich Rodriguez's offense in particular requires a QB who can be a viable running threat in order to create the numbers mismatch that is the central concept of the option offense. Without a QB who can do that, well... see Michigan offense circa 2008.
What will make this spring a particularly intriguing one is the battle at the QB position between three young candidates. Will it be the incumbent Lindsay-Lohan body double sophomore Tate Forcier; the dynamic rocket-powered, human turnover (née Denard Robinson); or highly-touted prototype RR QB incoming freshman Devin Gardner? Here's the skinny on each:
Tate Forcier (sophomore):
Best thing about freshmen? They become sophomores. Having started at QB all of 2009 as a true freshman, Forcier enters the QB battle this spring as the player with the most game experience. Forcier is a very polished passer, having been schooled on the position since the womb by controversial QB coach Marv Marinovich. After starting last season 4-0, including leading a dynamic comeback win over then-ranked Notre Dame, Forcier was plagued by a nagging shoulder injury--how significantly limiting this injury actually was to Forcier is just now coming to light--accompanied by the perfect accoutrement of the inevitable slew of freshman QB mistakes (including not securing the ball, see above).
Forcier's greatest limitation is that, though perfectly suited for a Texas or Oklahoma State-style pass-happy spread, he's not an RR-type spread QB. Standing at 5'11 (ish), 175 lbs (ish), it became clear last season that Forcier is not built to withstand the punishment that a QB in the RR system must incur as a viable running threat. Opposing linebackers were licking their chops at a chance to dust a guy who is the most important player on the team and, physically, closely resembles Elijah Wood. Despite his physical limitations, though, Forcier is a remarkable passer (though his arm strength on his deep balls is not the best) with adequate wiggle and an iron will to win. He's got the elusive "it" factor, where in a late-game situation with the clock running down, you want the ball in his hands (minus the Iowa game, for some reason). Tate has gone through the freshman growing pains already, and has had almost a full year (he enrolled last January) of instruction, film study and quality time with cult-favorite strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis. Rumored to be up to roughly 200 lbs entering spring ball, can Tate stay healthy and fend off his more athletically gifted contenders?
Denard Robinson (sophomore):
About Denard Robinson, one thing is certain: he is fast. Having run the 100 meter in 10.44 in high school (2nd fastest time in the nation, friends), the expectations were high for Robinson in an offense that puts speed as a premium... right behind speed and more speed. Unlike Forcier, Robinson's highly touted high school athletic career featured him as an athlete who played quarterback--he was highly recruited as a CB--instead of a quarterback-geared athlete. As a result, Robinson had received only basic training in the finer points of quarterbacking. Also unlike Forcier, Robinson did not enroll in the spring and thus did not benefit from the same familiarity and instruction with both the offense and college lifestyle. Denard Robinson electrified fans on his first play at QB in the season opener against the vaunted Western Michigan with this TD run off a broken play. Dude is so fast.
As the season wore on, though, the honeymoon was over rather quickly. His lack of familiarity with the offense, as well as lack of basic QB skills (such as QB-RB exchange, reading defenses, etc...) restricted Denard's playbook to one play: Run Denard, Run! Heck, even my mom knew what play Michigan was going to run when Denard was behind center. And she's got significantly less experience reading offenses than opposing D Coordinators. In addition, Robinson demonstrated a frustrating propensity for putting the ball on the ground when he wasn't throwing it to the other team. You had to feel for this kid, as he clearly wasn't ready to play QB last year.
This year, however, is a different story. Having had a summer, a season, and an offseason of instruction, reps and offensive drills (plus he ran track for U of M!), this is where it gets interesting. He certainly possesses the dynamic big-play running ability that RR covets so much in his QB's, but will Robinson have progressed enough in the offseason in the other necessary QB skills to effectively run the offense? This is where we'll see if D. Robinson is really cut out to be a QB, or if he's better suited for an all-purpose-back type of position, where he made several appearances late last year, now that the Wolverines have suitable depth at QB.
Devin Gardner (freshman):
As the #1 dual threat QB in the nation, Devin Gardner is exactly the type of QB that Rich Rodriguez needs to make his offense deadly. At 6'4, 215lbs, Gardner is an imposing physical specimen. Though decidedly raw as a passer, Gardner has shown great will to improve. Not only did he attend numerous passing camps last summer including the prestigious Elite 11 camp, but he garnered top overall QB honors at the camp by a number of analysts. Gardner is quite the athlete as well. Not only is his rushing ability ideal for a Rich Rodriguez offense, but just for funsies Gardner took some reps at WR in some of the drills at a passing camp last summer and pulled off some spectacular catches (including the one at 1:30 in this video).
Ideally, Devin Gardner would redshirt to have a year to become familiar with the offensive system before seeing the field. However, with Rich Rodriguez's future at Michigan hinging almost entirely on this season's performance, will the prospect of Devin Gardner's potential be too tantalizing to keep in the cellar and outweigh the prospect of another woeful year of having a freshman QB? Gardner is already on campus, having enrolled at Michigan in January, and will don the maize n blue shortly for spring practice. Will Devin Gardner pick up the offense fast enough to surpass the sophomores?
This Season: Tate starts, Denard takes reps at RB/Slot as well as serving as the backup, Gardner sees the field sporadically against weaker opponents.
Long term: assuming RR keeps his job, Devin and Tate split time, Denard is moved to a skill position where he belongs.
This Week in Michigan Football...
MONDAY: Spring Field Guide
TUESDAY: Michigan QB Controversy
WEDNESDAY: Mike Barwis
THURSDAY: MVP Profile - David Molk
FRIDAY: Keeping the Enemy Close - A Buckeye's Thoughts