2011 Preview Roundtable: Denard Robinson’s Production

Previously: Breakout Player, Impact Freshman, Big Ten Favorite, The Running Back Situation, National Champion

We’re back with another 2011 preview roundtable, in which each of the site’s three writers debate key topics for the upcoming season. Today, we look at Denard Robinson’s fit in the new offense and predict his statistical output for the 2011 season.

Ace: Let’s just get this out of the way now, for those of you worried that Michigan’s offense will try to be an exact replica of the 1985 San Francisco 49ers:

That, my friends, is the first snap of Michigan’s 2011 spring game, and you’ll notice that the formation, at least, strongly resembles what the Wolverines ran last year under Rich Rodriguez. Some of the plays will be familiar as well. The money quotes, straight from the mouth of offensive coordinator Al Borges [emphasis mine]:

“Our offense is not zone read or spread,” offensive coordinator Al Borges said, “but we’ll do some of that stuff.

Borges envisions Michigan’s quarterbacks lining up under center about half the time, perhaps a little more than half. The rest of the time, they’ll line up in the shotgun. In the shotgun, Michigan will use two running backs about half the time and one back or no backs the other half the time.

But before you think you have it all figured out, read this.

“Schematically, we’re blowing everything up and starting over again,” Borges said. “We’re still going to gear everything we do offensively to the skills of the people that are doing it, in particular the quarterback. Are we going to look just like we did at San Diego State? Probably not.

“We may in three or four years. We’ll see how this thing evolves.”

So, while we probably won’t see an offense predicated on Denard right, Denard left, Denard middle, and surprise(!) Denard pass — which could be a very good thing, especially when it comes to Robinson’s durability — there will still be plenty of opportunity for Robinson to work his magic on the ground, especially if he becomes comfortable taking off when a passing play breaks down, something he didn’t do at all last year. The zone read might not be the centerpiece of the offense, but it will still be implemented, and I expect it will be effective.

Al Borges may not be the perfect offensive coordinator for taking advantage of Denard Robinson’s skill set, but he’s also not an idiot, and only an idiot wouldn’t find a way to utilize Shoelace’s prodigious running talents. So far, Borges has said everything I’ve wanted to hear in that regard (see above), so the question for me isn’t as much how Robinson will fare as a runner — if I had to place a wager, I’d still bet on Denard leading the team in rushing this season — but how much he’ll develop as a passer in an offense with more complicated route schemes and reads.

Lest us forget, Robinson improved dramatically as a quarterback from his freshman to sophomore seasons, going from one-dimensional runner with a scattershot-at-best arm to a true dual-threat quarterback, raising his efficiency rating from a paltry 91.59 to 149.58, good for 20th in the country. Obviously, an equal improvement is out of the question — the best rating in the country last year was Kellen Moore’s 182.64, and Robinson’s rating was helped greatly by those unstoppable play-action passes where he’d take a step forward and the entire defense would abandon their assignments and leave gaping holes in the secondary — but I expect Robinson to become a more accurate passer. This improvement may not show up in the stats, but I think Robinson’s passing numbers will look similar to last year’s, just with more attempts.

Last year, Robinson completed 182 of 291 attempts (62.5%) for 2570 yards, 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, while rushing for 1702 yards and 14 touchdowns on 256 carries (6.6 yards per carry). My guess for this year is something along these lines: 240 completions on 380 attempts (63.2%) for 3230 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, with 1100 yards rushing on 170 carries (6.5 yards per carry) and another 10 touchdowns on the ground.

Yes, this is a rosy outlook, even if the interception number is still a tad high, but I truly believe that the concerns over Robinson’s ability to adapt to this offense are overblown, and we’ll once again see a potential Heisman contender at quarterback for the Wolverines this season.

Alex: There has been a ton of hand-wringing over the offense for this upcoming season, and at the center of this consternation is the potentially problematic combination of Denard Robinson and Al Borges. The fear that Robinson will be handcuffed is a legitimate one; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that a guy who’s a generous 6-0, 190 lbs is probably not well-suited to hand off the ball thirty times per game from under center and try to function as a guy who takes most of his pass attempts on play actions and three- or five-step drops. Fortunately for Michigan, Borges wasn’t born yesterday and I’m very confident that he’ll tailor the offense to fit Denard’s skill set. I have a feeling that a lot of this rhetoric about toughness, “manball”, and a power running game is just to say what Michigan fans want to hear — either the coaches have figured out that the personnel on the team isn’t suited for a downhill running game already, or they’ll find out quickly once Michigan starts competing against good defenses that they shouldn’t run a Wisconsin-like offense.  To their credit, I think they’ll make sure that Denard’s talents are used correctly, but that still doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll do very well.

The biggest problems I foresee with Denard’s game are his passing abilities and decision making. He was virtually unprepared for college, the offense, and pretty much everything when he set foot on campus three weeks before his first game, and last year he had a season of game experience, tons of time spent on the practice field and film room, and synergy and confidence wit his teammates. Statistically, Denard was phenomenal, and his running ability was pretty awesome any way you slice it. His passing ability however, was less impressive. Since so much time has passed since the end of last season, it’s easy to remember the Denard Robinson that was in total command of the offense, was confident, dangerous, and garnered all the early hype. It’s easy to forget the Denard Robinson that through two interceptions into the endzone against Michigan State, was replaced by Tate Forcier against Iowa (and Tate played better than Denard), and was benched in favor of Forcier midway through the Purdue game that was admittedly played in a monsoon. All of those highlight runs throughout the season are now coloring our judgment of Denard as a passer — he was certainly above average as a first year starter — seeing as how he didn’t perform at even an All-Big Ten level when he threw the ball. I realize that he was dinged up throughout the season, and yes, a lingering injury to his shoulder affected his arm a lot, but it’s not like he was a great passer even when he was healthy. He’s a Heisman-level ball-carrier and a decent passer. Fortunately, there’s a ton of room for improvement.

Improvement is a given when a quarterback is in his second year of an offensive system, but Al Borges is bringing a more complex West Coast passing attack to Ann Arbor. It’s an entirely new system for Denard, and he struggled mightily during the Spring Game (the usual caveats about the fallacies of drawing conclusions from spring scrimmages, but let’s be honest, a Heisman contender — like many Michigan fans feel that Denard is — shouldn’t do that badly). Another learning curve will be presented to Denard, and I don’t doubt that he’ll succeed, but it might take some time. Last year, he threw lots of bubble screens off of quick reads, lots of easy slant or curl routes, and frequently hit wide-open receivers after showing run. This year, he’ll be forced to make way more complex reads with his wide receivers and throw with NFL-type passing routes and combinations. Yes, he’ll have a year of experience as a starter which does definitely help, but still, the learning curve is steep. If he can handle a brand new system that’s more difficult than the old one, it would be tremendous for Michigan football. I wouldn’t count on it though: these things take time.

Last year’s stats:

182 completions on 291 attempts (62.5%) for 2570 yards, 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. 256 rushing attempts for 1702 yards (6.6 yards per carry), 14 touchdowns.

My rough guess:

200 completions on 325 attempts (57.1%) for 2700 yards, 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. 150 rushing attempts for 900 yards (6 yards per carry), 8 touchdowns.

Jack: When this recruiting cycle started off, my overly hopeful dreams were not the usual, of Michigan snagging the top players at each position, stealing away the likes of Andrus Peat and Dorial Green-Beckham, as they might be in any normal year. No, this year, I wanted quarterbacks. Lots and lots (meaning 2) of high profile QBs. Ideally, of course, that would mean landing some combination of Zeke Pike, Gunner Kiel, Wes Lunt (big fan of his), or Tyler O’Connor. Why so many, you ask yourself? Quite simply, I wanted Denard as a running back in this offense. A really fast, lightning quick, dreadlock-rocking, eye-popping tailback. And quite simply, we don’t have the depth to do that. Leaving the QB position right now would cripple our depth, leaving a (should-be redshirt freshman?) sophomore cannon-armed gun-slinger, and a true freshman recent-Purdue-defector. If that doesn’t scare you, perhaps you’d be interested in a job as an alligator wrestler (all kidding aside, that was my dream job for at least 6 years of my life…during my 20s..)?

But the move wasn’t just to benefit the running back position. I’m having a great deal of difficulty seeing Denard as the answer at QB, even if it is just for two years. Unless ‘Borges-Style-West-Coast’ means a heavy deal of shotgun/option plays, where we still spread the defense, Robinson will struggle, and mightily. His arm looked erratic at best during the Spring Game, and the latest scuttlebutt from sources here and there is that Robinson’s having a hard time getting a good grip on the offense. Do I think he’ll work hard to get it all down? Of course, he’s one of the hardest, most humble workers on the team. But sometimes it’s just not a good fit. I can’t help but see a vastly slashed statline from last year. Will interceptions go down? I think that’s a reasonable expectation. That more depends on the chemistry he’s developed with his receivers and a grown maturity as a passer. But will his number of touchdowns thrown go down? I’m almost sure of it. For one, when the formation is spread, it’s likely we’ll be seeing a lot more TEs than we used to. So, instead of wily slot ninjas, the goal will be to out-size the opponent. Why’s that a bad thing? Well let’s take a gander at the TE depth chart shall we? This year, it should look something like this:

Experienced Veteran
Highly Touted TE Who’s Failed to Impress Thus Far, Very Little Experience
Fifth Year Senior Who’s Made a Career Switching Between Offense and Defense
Undersized Former WR
True Freshman [Ed: And one coming off major knee surgery, at that.]
DOOOOM

While there’s a good chance one of them could break out, Koger looks like the only reliable target in the group. And even he had a case of the dropsies at times last year, losing his occasional starting role to Martell Webb. All in all, I’m a little concerned at the moment, but almost all of my judgment is based on rumors and conjecture, so maybe the staff will prove me entirely wrong and show me how foolish my skepticism was. Statline?
MOAR pass attempts, FEWER runs, BETTER (?) efficiency. 232/351 passing, 15 TDs, 8 INTs. 153 attempts, 1009 yards rushing.

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2 comments
  1. Anonymous said:

    Well done, all. Alex brings up an excellent point which is my major concern: the passing game. I think all this nonsense about Devin Gardner looking to go elsewhere is horse pucky; all you have to do is look at Denard’s performance in the passing game last year. I think it’s fair to say that last year Denard struggled mightily in the passing game. Last year Denard stayed on the field during simply TERRIBLE passing performances (MSU comes to mind) as he was really our only option at QB to run the dynamic RR offense. 

    This year things will be different. I think if Denard continues not to show any improvement on his deep ball (IMO his #1 weakness), and cannot make the throws, I think Gardner gets a shot. And he may not give it up.

  2. Anonymous said:

    Well done, all. Alex brings up an excellent point which is my major concern: the passing game. I think all this nonsense about Devin Gardner looking to go elsewhere is horse pucky; all you have to do is look at Denard’s performance in the passing game last year. I think it’s fair to say that last year Denard struggled mightily in the passing game. Last year Denard stayed on the field during simply TERRIBLE passing performances (MSU comes to mind) as he was really our only option at QB to run the dynamic RR offense. 

    This year things will be different. I think if Denard continues not to show any improvement on his deep ball (IMO his #1 weakness), and cannot make the throws, I think Gardner gets a shot. And he may not give it up.

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