With Denard Robinson at quarterback, Michigan has vaulted back into the ranks of respectability among both the Big Ten and nationally. Robinson began as a four-star athlete from Deerfield Beach, Florida and earned a regular starting nod by his sophomore year at the collegiate level, quickly taking the college football world by storm. However, it became clearer as games passed that Robinson was a prolific run threat, but an uneven player overall. He'd devour toothless defenses but sometimes struggle against more elites ones, and likely will go down as the leader in the modern era in all-time September Heisman's won. Shoelace is now a senior and ready to move on to his next step in his life. Whether that's the NFL at free safety or whatever it is that Dexter McCluster plays, or something else altogether, that remains to be seen. For now, as his reign of terror comes to a close, we take a look at Michigan's future without their long time weapon.
To look into the future, we'll have to go back to the past. His first two career starts against UConn and Notre Dame were magical and thrust him somewhat accordingly of many early season Heisman shortlists. Observers compared the then-sophomore to Michael Vick and Barry Sanders, and the hits just kept on coming in 2010. Unfortunately, the more palatable physical hits on the the somewhat undersized principal ball carrier of the Wolverines took a toll, as injuries and ineffectiveness plagued him down the stretch in blowout losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Mississippi State. And basically whenever Tate Forcier was forced to play, bad things happened. Robinson would be knocked out of games against Michigan State and the Buckeyes as well. Denard ended the season with eye-popping statistics padded by his first few games. He threw for 2570 yards and 18 touchdowns with an astounding 8.8 yards per completion. On top of that, his reported 4.3-4.4 speed allowed him to outrun slower defenses all year to the tune of 1702 yards and 14 touchdowns. Without him, Michigan was ineffective at best – Tate Forcier could never get it together, and Ohio State fans are somewhat familiar with the limitations of "quarterback-as-whole-offense" playbook.
In 2011, Robinson had some help. Fitzgerald Toussaint emerged as a more than viable threat out of the backfield, so defenses were forced to respect both players. Devin Gardner also was used in several formations, and even came in to spell Denard when he was hurt. Michigan had an 11-2 season and beat Ohio State. However, again Robinson struggled against some of the better defenses the Wolverines faced. Michigan State and Iowa stopped the speedy Robinson in his tracks, and forced him to attempt to beat them with his arm. Defenses accrued more film after 2010, and noticed that Robinson, while in possession of a decent arm, lacked the accuracy to continually hit receivers in stride when throwing. Those that were capable of doing so forced Robinson to become more one dimensional. After his jaw dropping performance against Notre Dame in which he feasted on some of the most incompetent cornerback play all year in a nationally televised game, Robinson struggled with accuracy and finished with 20 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a 55% completion rate. He was still extremely effective on the ground, scoring 16 touchdowns but also running for nearly 600 fewer yards. Robinson took his team to a Sugar Bowl victory, but some Michigan fans were left wanting more. Concern about his arm and injuries (and the future of backup Devin Gardner) increased as his stats regressed.
So far this year, Robinson has not been near the player that was expected of him from a quarterbacking standpoint. He has completed only 53% of his passes, and was responsible for five turnovers in the Notre Dame game. Robinson has thrown for only 1319 yards, 9 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, and has seen his role quasi Wally Pipp-ed by Gardner during the Nebraska game due to an ulnar nerve injury. However, Robinson has shown flashes of still being the same dynamic threat on the ground, with the largest yards per carry of his career (7.3). He has also caught the first two passes of his career. Robinson has about 100 fewer rushing attempts but seems to be making the most of them. Denard, while his passing has regressed, has provided plenty of evidence that he is still a dangerous runner and playmaker when the ball is in his hands.
Going into Robinson's final game as a Wolverine, it looks like Devin Gardner will start at quarterback with Shoelace confined to direct snaps as well as the backfield. For all the dings on his physique, Robinson's bulked up to 6'0", 205 pounds – the same measurables as Reggie Bush was coming out of college – and health permitting, will undoubtedly receive some attention at running back, kick returner, at a secondary position to be determined, or maybe even at receiver from NFL scouts. However, at quarterback, Michigan appears to be moving on. Coach Brady Hoke and Al Borges prefer a more west-coast style of play. They will still have the capable running threat Gardner provides taking snaps, but if he proves to be ineffective long term, new golden boy Shane Morris will no doubt get a look. Whether the highly touted pocket passer becomes a star or the Wolverines continue to effectively leverage the dual threat Gardner, the battles between Urban Meyer and Hoke seem hellbent to only get even more epic. Denard Robinson had a great run and became a cult hero, but from a quarterbacking standpoint, he was probably far closer to Juice Williams than Russell Wilson. Opposing defenses probably won't miss him, but long term, neither will Michigan.