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Title:The Evolution of Denard Robinson
by Sam Webb
When Denard Robinson burst out of the blocks last season, his scintillating playmaking ability was quickly the talk of the college football world. His breathtaking performance on the road versus Notre Dame suddenly thrust him into the thick of Heisman contention. By the time conference play began he was the frontrunner. Even after his production waned in Big 10 action -- thanks in large part to the injuries that resulted from the relentless pounding he took -- most still considered the Deerfield Beach, FL native to be one of college football’s best players. When the dust settled, the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year had become the first player in college football history to pass for at least 2500 yards and run for at least 1500 in the same season. It is that unprecedented success that has many pundits touting Robinson’s Heisman candidacy in 2011. While no one can dispute that he possesses physical skill to win the award, it can certainly be argued he lacks another ingredient likely necessary to do so. Experience.
That might sound like a ridiculous statement at first glance. After all, Robinson started every game for the Wolverines last season and saw action in every contest as a true freshman. That experience came, however, while running a different offense -- one diametrically opposed philosophically to the one he ran his first two years donning the winged helmet. That is in no way meant to suggest that “Shoelace” can’t again become one of college football’s most consistently dynamic playmakers. It merely means that it’s going to take time to get back to that point.
Former Michigan quarterback Chad Henne played in a traditional pro-style system at Michigan before doing the same professionally as the starting signal caller for the Miami Dolphins. He witnessed firsthand how difficult the type of change Robinson is undergoing can be when his former teammate, Pat White was unable to adapt. The former West Virginia quarterback struggled even though his primary quarterback duties came as part of the Dolphins’ spread-like “Wildcat” attack. Having seen that, Henne knows what’s ahead of Robinson.
“It is definitely going to be a big transition with progression reading,” said Henne. “Reading defenses and knowing where to go with the football (is much different). But I think Denard is a smart person. I haven’t met him, but seeing interviews and the way he approaches things, he is a very smart and bright kid. He is a heck of a talent with a lot more talent than I have with his legs. He has been throwing the ball very well. I watched a lot of the games. I got to see him last year. He is improving, which is good. I think the transition is going to be tough at first, but I think he is going to fit right in and do a great job here.”
Understanding the magnitude of the change seems to be a lot easier for coaches and players than it is for fans and pundits predicting a ten win season and Robinson leading the race for the Heisman Trophy. Former Michigan quarterback and college football analyst Brian Griese is preaching patience to those with visions of Robinson and the offense picking up right where it left off.
“I certainly think there is going to need that transition time to get used to the offense,” stated Griese. “I go back to the most important thing about Denard Robinson -- his unique skill sets. He is different than 99.9% of the quarterbacks in college football today, and I think Al Borges and I think that Brady Hoke will utilize his skill sets to the best of their ability. They are not going to try to pound a square peg into a round hole. There are going to be differences and I think there are some things that they can do offensively that will take advantage of his skill sets. The biggest change I think for him is going to be that he is going to have to play with his back to the line of scrimmage a little bit more.”
“In the spread offense, you’re in the gun, you are manipulating the offense, and your head is always downfield making one read off of an end or making a read in the passing game. In the pro-style offense there is a lot more play action. You’ve got to turn your back to the defense and that’s not an easy thing to do. It is like a bullfighter in the ring with the bull coming at you. You’ve got to put your back to him and not know where is for a split second, then turn around and get your eyes back on the defense. You’ve got to be very disciplined in your reads pre-snap and post-snap because you have to diagnose where the defense is going to be since you know that you are not going to see them the entire time that you are back there. “
“The benefit is if they develop that running game and give him an opportunity to hand the ball off more, they’ll throw the ball from the pocket with the linebackers and safeties reacting to a real running game. Then they can have the naked game off of that, where he has run/pass options. He has plenty of talent to throw the football to. You could see guys wide open in that kind of an offense because did you fake the ball or did you give it? The linebackers have got to make that read. ‘If he keeps the ball, we’ve got to get back into pass coverage to defend the pass.’ But the third aspect of it is, okay, they did a good job on the run and they did a good job on the pass, so now I’m just going to tuck it and run it myself. That is a dynamic that in that offense as a third read can be so dangerous.”
For the rest of this article, a full breakdown of the offense position by position, a Q & A with Denard Robinson, a tribute to Jim Mandich, and much much more, be sure to check out the next issue of GoBlueWolverine