2011 Position Preview: Quarterback

Expect to see more drop-back passing from Denard Robinson this season.

It’s nearly August, which means it’s about time to kick the football season preview content into full gear. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the 2011 Wolverines position-by-position. Today, the position previews kick off with a look at Michigan’s quarterbacks:

Returning: Denard Robinson (Jr.), Devin Gardner (Soph.)
Tate Forcier (transfer to, um, a school to be named later)
Incoming: Russell Bellomy

Returning Player Stats:

[table id=146 /]

Overview: It is rare that a team returning an All-American quarterback faces so many questions at the position, but Michigan’s current situation is unusual, to say the least. You’re all familiar with Denard Robinson, aforementioned All-American returning starter and the most exciting Wolverine since some guy named Charles Woodson. Robinson emerged as one of the country’s most electrifying players as a sophomore, winning the job from now-departed Tate Forcier after a true freshman season spent as a backup with a tenuous grasp of the offense. “Shoelace” put up video game numbers in 2010, crushing the NCAA record for rushing yards as a quarterback with 1,702 — the previous record, set in 1996 by Air Force’s Beau Morgan, was 1,494 — and he became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 2,500 yards and rush for 1,500 yards in the same season.

Of course, Robinson also had his struggles, both with a nasty tendency to get knocked out of games early and his ability to read defenses and make accurate throws downfield — 10 of his 11 interceptions came in the team’s final eight games, and while a couple came on unfortunate tipped balls, most were of the “what the hell was that?” variety. One would normally expect many of those issues to be ironed out in a quarterback’s second season as a starter, but Robinson must now learn a new system under offensive coordinator Al Borges, one that would appear to play less to his strengths — mainly his legs, and their ability to make receivers hilariously wide open upon the mere suggestion that they would be utilized — than Rich Rodriguez’s zone-read based spread.

It’s the biggest question surrounding the Wolverines this season, and the key to the offense — which returns ten starters — coming close to the production which saw the team finish second in Football Outsiders’s offensive FEI in 2010: How will Robinson adapt to the new system? The honest answer (and really the only true answer to any preseason question) is nobody knows — for now, we still have no idea what that new system will look like, as Borges will likely mix in more shotgun into his West Coast-based offense than ever before. All we know is that Robinson will run less and throw more, which should help his durability issues but could limit his effectiveness.

If Robinson goes down — and given what we saw last season, that’s a distinct possibility, at least for small stretches — the backup is sophomore Devin Gardner, who saw spot duty as a backup in the first five games of last season before shutting it down with a back injury, one which will hopefully earn him a medical redshirt at the end of his career. At 6-4, 210 pounds, Gardner appears far more suited to run a pro-style offense than Robinson, despite being the country’s top-rated dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school in 2010. It will be interesting to see how Gardner has progressed as a passer, as last season he was clearly still working on the mechanics of his throw, which often resembled a Vince Young-esque shot put heave instead of a fundamentally sound overhead toss. Some predicted before the spring that Gardner could compete this year for the starting job, and while that appears to be off the table, he should be a very solid option as a backup.

The only other scholarship quarterback on the roster is incoming freshman Russell Bellomy, a three-star dual threat prospect who was snake-oiled away from a Purdue commitment by Brady Hoke when he took the head coaching job. Thunder of Touch the Banner made a very interesting comparison when evaluating Bellomy after his commitment [emphasis mine]:

Watching highlights of Bellomy, his high school team runs an offense that looks a lot like Auburn’s.  It’s somewhat surprising that Rich Rodriguez, who needed a quarterback in the class of 2011 after Kevin Sousa decommitted, didn’t pursue Bellomy.  Bellomy has some serious wheels and escapability.  He only completed approximately 59% of his passes over the past couple seasons, but he threw very few interceptions (seven total from 2009-2010) and ran the ball for 1,200 yards over those two seasons.

Interestingly, Bellomy is a bit like offensive coordinator Al Borges’ old protege, Cade McNown.  Bellomy is a little bit taller than McNown, but he’s mobile, has somewhat erratic mechanics, and lacks great arm strength.  He shares those qualities with McNown, although the former UCLA quarterback also lacked some leadership qualities.  Judging by a couple interviews I’ve seen of Bellomy, he seems to be a very grounded, respectful, humble young man.

Despite the shortcomings that would be harshly revealed as an NFL player, McNown was a great college player, nearly leading UCLA to the BCS title game in the 1998 season while earning first-team All-American honors, the Johnny Unitas Award (best senior quarterback), and becoming the Pac-10’s all-time leader in total offense. That’s obviously a best-case scenario for Bellomy, and Michigan would be in rough shape if he was forced into duty as a true freshman, but he’s an intriguing developmental prospect.

Recruiting/The Future: As you can see, the Wolverines currently have just three scholarship quarterbacks to work with, so one would normally expect that Brady Hoke would pursue another signal-caller in the class of 2012. That may not be the case, however, as Hoke has already gained the commitment of elite in-state sophomore Shane Morris (class of 2013), and Michigan should return all three current quarterbacks next season. The Wolverines can afford to wait on Morris while Gardner gets his chance to start and Bellomy develops, and with Michigan likely out of the running with top-rated 2012 prospects like Gunner Kiel and Maty Mauk, it appears unlikely that Michigan will take a QB in next year’s rapidly-filling class.

The Final Word: While the offense will look different than what we’ve become accustomed to in the past few years, I still expect Robinson to have an extremely productive season while improving his efficiency as a passer. No, he won’t approach 2,000 rushing yards again, but the hope is that he won’t have to for this team to put up a lot of points. Al Borges has done, in my opinion, a great job of adapting to his personnel throughout his career, allowing his offense to evolve with each passing year, so I still expect to see a fair amount of shotgun and the zone read in 2011. If that’s the case, we should see another All-American performance from Robinson, with the obvious caveat that he must stay healthy in order for that to come to fruition. Still, with Gardner as a backup option, quarterback is a position I have little concern about heading into the fall.

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