Saturday, September 8, 2012
Updated: September 13, 8:46 AM ET
Denard, too, shall pass
By Michael Rothstein
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The myth of Denard Robinson is he is not an efficient quarterback. That he can't make the progressions, the dropbacks and the right reads. The myth of Denard Robinson is he is so much better as a shotgun quarterback than under center.
Now, what if none of that were true?
What if Robinson were lethal when he stepped in from the shotgun and put his hands under center? What if Robinson were to say he is comfortable out of the shotgun or under center, and it wasn't just lip service?
What if his statistics when passing from under center revealed him to be as efficient as any quarterback in the nation?
Guess what? According to statistics culled by ESPN Stats and Information, it is true.
"That's something that I'm getting more comfortable with," Robinson said. "It's something I got out of there for a little while and now I'm back getting comfortable with it."
The comfort comes from Robinson's high school career, when he took snaps under center around 60 percent of the time in a Wing-T offense and would often run a waggle play from which he would pass. It translated to college when his old coach, Rich Rodriguez, was fired and the school hired Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges.
Robinson has completed 46 of 70 passes from under center in his career. That's a 65.7 percent completion rate. As if that weren't eye-catching enough, consider this: As a dropback quarterback, Robinson has thrown 12 touchdowns and only one interception and has a passer efficiency rating of 197.9 under center.
He has been even more effective there under Borges, where he has completed 42-of-62 (67.7 percent), thrown all 12 touchdowns and that one interception with a passer efficiency rating of 209.7. While the sample size is much smaller, consider this -- the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Andrew Luck, had a 169.69 passer efficiency rating last season at Stanford.
Robinson, though, spends much of his time in the shotgun, where he is a more pedestrian 316-of-561 (56.3 percent) in his career with 31 touchdowns, 32 interceptions and a 133.3 pass efficiency rating. Since Borges arrived, his shotgun numbers have dipped to 125-of-247 (50.6 percent) with 11 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and a pass efficiency rating of 118.9.
"I don't monitor those numbers like that but I know the under-center play has been pretty productive," Borges said. "He's asked for more under-center plays, but the problem with that is it takes him out a little bit as a runner. So we're hesitant to do too much of that.
"But we still feature it and he's been very good when we've used it with the run and pass."
Therein lies the conundrum. Robinson has the potential to be a very effective passer consistently. But if Michigan turned him into that it would limit his greatest asset and what makes him one of the more special players in all of football -- his ability to run.
Since Borges took over, Robinson has had 235 carries out of the shotgun for 1,366 yards -- 5.8 yards a carry -- and 15 touchdowns. Under center, he has carried it only 16 times for 54 yards -- 3.4 yards a carry -- and four touchdowns.
Robinson is a better passer under center and a better runner in the shotgun, which leads to more offensive flexibility and the hybrid offense Borges now runs between his preferred pro style, which favors a strong running back and passing quarterback, and the shotgun spread style, which affords Robinson the ability to run better.
"He's a better runner and more productive runner in the shotgun, and in third down, for obvious reasons, you want to be in the shotgun," Borges said. "So you put those two together, you're going to get a lot of shotgun play. Now if you don't have as good a runner as he is, you're going to have less early down shotgun play, like we did in the past at other places that I've been.
"Put the two together, you're just in the shotgun more, period. If you're in the shotgun more, your numbers are probably not going to be quite as productive. When you pick and choose when to go under center and do what we do under center, it's been a really nice piece of our game. He likes doing it."
It goes to more than liking it. Robinson said he has gone to Borges in the past -- never during a game, but during the week -- and has asked to take more snaps under center. It's an area he not only wants to improve in, but one where he knows he's effective and at times and actually looks more comfortable as a passer.
"I asked him a couple times if I could stay under center a little bit, play under center," Robinson said. "He just said, 'All right, we'll see what we can do.' This is during the week. I'm not going to say that in a game, not in a game, he's in coaching mode.
"He's a great coach, so I just fall behind him. Whatever he wants to do, I'm with him."
So how does Borges make up his mind? What pushes him to call more shotgun one week and offer more of an under-center gameplan the next?
Simply, how an opponent plays against the run.
"Running the ball and zone read," Borges said. "How the defense plays a zone read, not just the zone read but other facets of our shotgun play. We have a lot of things we do out of shotgun other than just zone read.
"But that's a big part of it."
Almost 80 percent of Robinson's dropbacks in his career - a dropback defined as either a pass attempt, scramble or sack -- have come from shotgun. It understandable, too, because what makes Robinson so different is his ability to understand the zone read so well and also accelerate at sprinter-like speed to outrun defenders.
And that is what makes him special enough that Michigan has eschewed some passing efficiency to highlight his biggest strength. It's why the Wolverines won't be switching entirely to a pro-style offense until Robinson leaves.
"It doesn't feature what he does best," Borges said. "But it does get our tailback more involved in the game and it helps our play-action game. So in that regard it's good but it still doesn't cater to what he does best.
"Denard is best when he threatens the defense as a runner, and shotgun is the most efficient formation for that."
Yes, Denard Robinson is a runner, one of the best in college football. But as he has grown from being a freshman to a senior one thing has become clear, one thing now borne out by statistics.
He is so much more than that.
Denard is best when he threatens the defense as a runner, and shotgun is the most efficient formation for that.
-- Offensive coordinator Al Borges