Saturday, January 15, 2011

Mailbag: Why would Denard change positions?

Denard Robinson: Faster than a horse.

Thanks for the blog, which I enjoy. As you are clearly knowledgeable about football, I was surprised by the following comment:
"My initial reaction is to expect that Robinson will transfer, perhaps to Pitt, where former Michigan offensive coordinator Calvin Magee has alighted. He could go to Pittsburgh, sit out 2011, and have two years of eligibility to play quarterback. In my opinion, the best chance Hoke has to retain Robinson is to make a pitch for Robinson to become a running back or wide receiver."It seems to me that if Robinson stays, he simply must be a quarterback. Otherwise, with Forcier gone, Michigan would be down to one scholarship quarterback, which is clearly unacceptable.

As of now, there are no QB commits in the 2011 class, and at this late date, I suspect the best Hoke could get is a mid-range three-star who will show up in August unprepared for Division I football. If Robinson transfers, we will have to live with that. But if Robinson stays, I cannot imagine that the coaches would choose to hand the job to Gardner, with an anonymous true-freshman three-star kid as his backup.

Let’s assume that Gardner would beat out Robinson in an open competition (not at all obvious to me, but I’ll run with it). You still need two guys ready to play the position. QB is hard enough to learn when you practice it full-time. I can’t imagine that Robinson would have be able to learn a new playbook, get fully prepared to back up Gardner, and have any significant amount of time left to practice other another position that he has never played before.

On top of all that, Robinson seems to want to play QB. I doubt that he would survive a whole season at running back, given his propensity for injury, and he has no history catching the ball. But even if Robinson wanted and were suited to another position, the lack of depth at QB pretty much precludes that idea.

Again: love the blog. I just wonder what on earth you were thinking when you suggested a position switch for Denard. It seems to me the world’s most impractical idea.

Best regards, Marc

Here's my thought process on the matter...

Denard is an excellent runner. He's a mediocre thrower and I'm not sure he has the ability to play quarterback in an offense that's something other than an option offense where he's a frequent running threat.  His mechanics are iffy, his decision making is iffy, and his 62.5% completion percentage belies his scattershot arm.  There's a frustrating lack of accuracy on short throws from Robinson that often prevents his receivers from doing much with the ball once it hits their hands - and that's to say One could point to Roy Roundtree's frustrating drops - especially in the second half of the season - as a reason that Robinson's completion percentage should be higher, but I would argue that Robinson's running ability created a significant amount of wide open, easy catches (see Terrence Robinson's catch against UConn, Roundtree's touchdown against Mississippi State, and Roundtree's long touchdown against Illinois for just a few examples).

I don't think I said this in the other day's post, but I expect that Brady Hoke will recruit one or more quarterbacks in the Class of 2011. They probably won't be top-tier guys, but they'll be quarterbacks nonetheless. That would leave Devin Gardner, perhaps Tate Forcier (if he's reinstated), and a freshman or two.

I believe Gardner is a better fit for a pro-style offense than Rodriguez's zone read option. Gardner isn't a great runner. I think he's a pocket guy who can scramble. He would be great out of the shotgun, but he's not going to break big runs like Denard, Pat White, etc. I won't say that Rodriguez and Gardner were a mismatch, but I think Gardner would be more effective when deployed like Ohio State's Jim Tressel uses perennial bonehead Terrelle Pryor.  So here are the steps I was suggesting Michigan should take:

1. Prepare Gardner to be the starter.
2. Bring in a freshman or two and see if they can handle being the backup.
3. Move Denard to RB or WR. Create a package for him to be the "Wildcat QB" or just let him get a few reps at QB in case of an emergency. And if people get hurt ahead of him, he could always move back to QB in a Paul Thompson (ex-Oklahoma QB/WR) or Justin Siller (Purdue QB/RB) type of way.
I don't think Denard is as injury-prone as you suggested, although I do think he's injury-prone for a quarterback and was asked to run too much. He got his shoulder dinged up, but the main reason that mattered was because he was playing quarterback. A minor shoulder injury isn't a big deal for a RB because he doesn't have to throw. And Denard did bang up his hip and knee, but I would guess a majority of running backs get dinged up throughout the year. They were all pretty minor injuries, and I don't think they would have been as big of a deal if Denard wasn't a QB and touching the ball on 100% of the plays.

It's unclear whether Robinson has the ability to play wide receiver, which requires precise route-running and good hand-eye coordinator.  Quarterbacks usually have pretty good hands, and with Robinson's speed, I don't doubt that he could play receiver, at least the college level.  And he's already essentially a running back at times; we've seen his patience in waiting for blocks to develop, his ability to outrun or outmaneuver defenders, and his ability to accelerate through the hole.  Receiver might be a huge question mark, but I have no doubt that Robinson could be an outstanding running back at the college level.  I see no discernible difference between Robinson and Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson - one is listed at 6'0", 193 lbs. and the other is 5'11", 191 lbs. - who seems to be doing rather well for himself.

Like I said, it's partially dependent on whom Hoke can recruit to play QB. If he can't recruit someone for the class of 2011 and Tate Forcier doesn't return, then Denard surely has to stay at quarterback. But I agree that Denard does want to play quarterback, and there's something to be said for that. I just also think that Denard's NFL future depends on his versatility, and playing RB or WR might prepare him more for his future. Guys who convert from QB in college to another position in the NFL generally aren't anything more than role players in the NFL, although there are a few exceptions (Josh Cribbs, Antwaan Randle-El, etc.). There are guys out there like Julian Edelman, Brad Smith, and Bert Emanuel, but I don't think many superstar college players want to be the next Bert Emanuel.

None of this is to say that I dislike Denard Robinson or that I want him to transfer.  His leadership, on-field demeanor, effort, and talent are unquestionable.  I hope he remains at Michigan for two more years, Brady Hoke can use him effectively, and Robinson goes on to a long and illustrious football career.  If his goal is to be an outstanding college quarterback, win a lot of games, and re-insert himself into the Heisman race, then it might be in Robinson's best interest to play at a different school.  But if his goal is to maximize his effectiveness and begin a transition to a position that is more likely to get him to the NFL, it wouldn't be a bad idea for him to become a running back.


  1. Thanks! I've been hoping to read an ind-depth analysis of this possibility for a long time. What are your thoughts on these other issues?

    * 3 of our most talented offensive players (including Tate) are QBs. Moving Denard to another position puts more talent on the field. Expressed mathematically: (Devin/Tate + Denard) > (Denard + V Smith).

    * If Denard isn't QB then we can make much more of the limited runs he can handle per game: 1) He's not taking extra hits on plays where there is no benefit, like sacks and despearate scrambles, and 2) The defense won't know where he'll get the ball (handoff, screens, in the flats, over the middle, etc.); when he's QB they know when and where he gets it on every play.

    Go Blue!

  2. @ guanxi 3:24 p.m.

    I agree that Denard and Devin put more talent on the field than Denard and Vincent Smith. However - and I know I said this last year - I don't expect Vincent Smith to be the starting RB in 2011. As long as the other guys can stay healthy, I expect a more talented RB to beat out Smith. So I guess the question becomes this:

    Is (Denard + Toussaint/Shaw/Cox) > (Gardner + Denard)?

    That equation is a little murkier without knowing how Gardner might adapt/improve in his second year of college. Denard is already a known quantity, and the running backs are more proven, too, at least to some extent.

    As for your second point, I agree that Denard could be used more unpredictably at running back than at QB. I'm still surprised at the lack of trick plays that Rodriguez attempted to use in the past few years (end arounds, reverses, double passes, etc.). However, I don't think Robinson would necessarily take fewer hits at running back. He would presumably still be a blocker on pass plays, unless the coaches removed him every time they were going to pass the ball.

  3. My main concern is: Devin Gardner (if he wins the job) still needs a backup. My hats off to Hoke, if at this late date he finds a true freshman who is good enough to push Denard to third string. That would be an amazing find, if he can pull it off.

    And if Denard is second string, he would still need to spend most of his time practicing as a QB, since you can't assume that Devin will never go down. As a practical matter, that would limit the amount of time he could spend practicing at other positions.

    Of course, if Forcier makes it back onto the team, then the Denard-to-RB/Slot scenario begins to be a bit more plausible.

  4. Right now, the only person's thoughts that are of any relevance on where Denard SHOULD play are Denard's. From the sounds of it, his line of thinking is, "I'm a QB. If Michigan wants me as a QB, I'll be there. If they don't, I'll go elsewhere." So, since it's only between those two choices, I think Denard should play QB.

  5. Not gonna argue this, because it all seems like opinion to me anyway. There are all sorts of stats or plays one could cherry pick to argue that Denard can or can not play quarterback. I see play action get people just as wide open in a pro-style as anything I saw from Michigan this year. It's not like it was non-stop 60+ yard wide open pass plays this year. Seemed to me about average amount of blown coverage completions as any other team I've watched. Anyway, just wanted to go on record here that I think you are wrong about Denard. I'll check back in 10 months from now.

  6. Nice post. An observation somewhat related to a comment I made in another thread: you seem to imply Denard's issues as a passer, particularly his accuracy, are permanent problems. As an inveterate Michigan optimist, I look at his massive improvement from freshman to sophomore year--both in terms of throwing accuracy and general awareness--and assume that he can continue improving. Plus there's the fact that he did make some really nice throws this year as a pocket QB: the Roundtree pass to set up the ND winning touchdown was one; there was a long touch throw to Grady against one of the tomato cans that was impressive (tomato can for the offense at least, obviously there were no tomato cans for the D); and there were a number of nicely-lofted seams to TEs toward the end of the year after he struggled with that route toward the beginning. I guess what I'm saying is--given how little coaching he had in high school, this is a guy who entered the season with basically as much training as most big-time recruits have when they're true freshmen. And he still managed to complete more than 60% of his passes against D1 defenses. Shouldn't he continue to improve?

  7. @ Anonymous 8:06 p.m.

    I strongly, strongly disagree that regular play action plays get receivers as wide open as we saw Roundtree/Terrence Robinson get this year.

  8. @ BML 10:41 p.m.

    Denard surely still has the ability to improve, but how much? Generally players improve more from their freshman to sophomore year than in any other span during their college careers. I don't think we'll see another leap like we saw from 2009 to 2010.

    Denard did make some nice throws from the pocket in 2010, but he hit on a very small percentage of those throws. Even Junior Hemingway - who developed pretty good chemistry with Denard this past season - was visibly frustrated with Denard's lack of accuracy in the Gator Bowl.

  9. I really dislike all the conjecture about Denard moving to RB/WR. I find it pretty disrespectful to what Denard has achieved and how much he improved in just a year. I find it presumptuous that Denard would be a better WR/RB than the players we already have at those positions. I find it hard to fathom how taking the ball out of our best offensive players hands is a good thing. I find it extremely presumptuous to assume that Gardner is a better pro-style QB.

    IF Hoke lands a QB or 2 that are ready to play in 2011.
    IF Gardner can beat out Robinson in the Spring/Fall
    IF Borges struggles to utilize QBs as running threats
    IF Denard can beat out Stonum/Hemingway/Odoms/etc
    THEN lets talk about Denard changing positions.

    Until then, lets just be thankful Denard is making the brave decision to stick around in the face of the many questions about his role and capabilities. The guy has been a dream come true on the field and off. I'm not big on telling people to be positive or telling people what they shouldn't say, but if anyone has earned some respect and patience its Denard.

  10. The difference between say, Navarre, as a QB as a Sophomore and Senior was enormous. If Denard makes the same leap from freshman to sophomore again he'd be Tom Harmon or something. He was a totally incompetent QB his freshman year and lept to Big10 player of the impossible for him to make the same magnitude of leap again.

    What he CAN do is improve his ability to read defense, improve his decision-making on when to scramble, and improve his accuracy. Lets remember this is a super raw player still mostly getting by on athleticism and a strong arm.

  11. @ Lankownia 12:20 p.m.

    If you find it presumptuous that Denard would be a better running back than the guys we currently have at those positions, perhaps you should check out his 6.6 yards per carry (compared to Smith's 4.5 and Shaw's 5.4) and 14 touchdowns (compared to Smith's 5 and Shaw's 9).

  12. Do you think the RB average would improve with an extra blocker? How about with the threat of a pass in the potential tackler's mind?

    Pat White averaged something like 7 ypc @ WVU while Steve Slaton averaged 5.5. Slatons had far more impact as an NFL player. But I guess you think the Dolphins should bench their (Heisman level talent) Running Backs because White averages 6.2 ypc.

  13. @ Lankownia 2:27 p.m.

    Look, Lankownia, I'm not going to get in a long, drawn out argument with you about whether Denard Robinson is a better runner than Vincent Smith. If you disagree with me, that's fine. You can post your side of the argument and I'll publish it, but I don't need to spend time presenting a case for Denard's superiority over Michigan's other runners.

  14. The offense doesn't have time to install a wildcat package when they're going to be trying to install the basics of a pro-style offense.

    Every scouting report of Devin Gardner says he's a major running threat. He doesn't have the pure speed like White/Vick but he has the long-striding way of getting from A to B faster than you think, like Young/Pryor/Newton have.

    Gardners never been in a pro-style offense. RR wouldn't have recruited a pro-style QB so aggressively, nor would he have let other QBs drop away if Gardner didn't fit his system.

    All the accuracy questions that surround Denard's passing also apply to Gardner. They both have zero experience in the pro-style.

    The consensus on UofM QBs was that Denard was the runner, Forcier the accurate passer, and Gardner somewhere in between. Yet we saw that Forcier was effective as a runner, and Denard was effective as a passer. One strength opens up opportunities in the other realm.

    Denard could be better at WR or RB (though he doesn't really have the build). Gardner could be better at WR too...or defense. We don't know about either. Why the difference in perception?

    Is it just rigid thinking? body types?

    I think the real problem is a reoccurring one in the Michigan fanbase. The confusion of hope with expectation. Despite any real evidence, people HOPE Gardner is a conventional pro-style QB because its clear that Denard doesn't have a conventional skill set. Therefore Denard (who again, was the offensive player of the year at QB) should get out of the way. Nevermind that our best player won't touch the ball as much. Nevermind that a totally unproven 1st year starter would AGAIN be installed in the offense. Nevermind that we have 3 senior WRs. Nevermind that RB and WR are already the deepest positions on the roster and there are only 2 QBs on the team. Gardner is the answer, so Denard should move.

    Its ridiculous.

  15. Yeah, I agree Denard is a better "runner" than our current running backs. Running backs have to do a lot more than just run.

  16. One final thought -

    the degree to which Denard is unconventional as a QB in a conventional offense is equal to the degree that he's unconventional as a running back. He doesn't have the bulk or strength that a typical RB has.

    If you're thinking conventionally, he's a WR. But thats a position where he won't touch the ball much and a lot of depth exists.

    At the very least, they should wait till 2012 to move Denard; when the senior WRs move on, QB depth behind Gardner could be establish, and Gardner could have a season of experience behind our returning starter.

  17. @ Lankownia 2:43 p.m.

    I'm not saying Gardner is purely a pro-style quarterback. He could run the zone read option. But I think he has the potential to be a pro-style quarterback moreso than Robinson. I don't think Gardner is the same runner as Newton/Pryor/Young.

    Forcier was effective as a runner? Other than one play against Notre Dame in 2009, I largely disagree.

    Why the difference in position? Because Denard has no NFL future at the quarterback position. I'm sorry, but he doesn't. And you're right that Gardner is unproven, but his height and throwing ability give him a better chance than Denard.

    I never said that Gardner is "the answer." I'm not saying Michigan would be a juggernaut with him at quarterback. As someone said above, this is about finding the best 11 parts to get on the field. Is (Gardner + Denard) better than (Denard + Smith)? My guess is yes.

    Regardless, this is all moot. Hoke has stated that Robinson will stay at quarterback, and like I said in the post, certainly nothing can happen if Michigan's QB depth chart remains where it is.

  18. From a coach's point of view I understand both arguments between Thunder and Lankownia. Denard is a rare and unique talent that possesses more RB skills than QB skills. However, with our depleted QB roster, it is in THE TEAM's best interest for him to stay at QB.

  19. I agree with all your concerns about Denard at QB under the new regime. I also agree Gardner could prove to be the better QB in a different system. I guess my main point is: lets let Gardner prove it before we move the QB we have - who was kind of awesome, regardless of why/where/how. Lets also see what kind of offense Borges runs with talented QBs who are far off the pro-style prototype.

  20. Thunder, I bet people at VT were saying Vick had no chance to be a NFL qb also after his first and second year (which weret even close to the year Drob had, and he was redshirted). Check out wikipedia and post the height/weights and season splits and tell me who the pro bowl qb is. Saying Drob doesnt have a future as a QB is jumping ahead of yourself. He may make it or he may not, but there is zero doubt he is the best qb Michigan has on the roster.