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January 3, 2013

Maize N' View: Denard Robinson was the right man to play QB

In hindsight, it has been suggested that if Brady Hoke really was such a great coach he would have voluntarily moved Denard Robinson to running back long ago, ushering in the Devin Gardner era at quarterback. But this opinion is misinformed and doesn't take into account how the past two seasons actually unfolded.

When Hoke arrived in January 2011, he had two scholarship QBs on the roster. One in Robinson that had started all 13 games in 2010, had the most experience and had proven to be a dynamic player that rushed for 1,702 yards and threw for 2,570, obliterating Michigan's record for total offense in setting the new mark with 4,272 yards.

Robinson was the unquestioned leader of the Maize and Blue, and the key to winning over Team 132 immediately. If Hoke and Co. had not given Robinson a fair shot to be the quarterback, he likely would have bolted, and if he stepped out the door, many of his teammates would have either thought about it also or, at the very least, struggled to buy in to the new staff. Thus, it was fundamental to have Robinson on board.

The other QB (Gardner) had seen a few snaps in his true freshman year, attempting 10 passes, until Tate Forcier got his head on straight and became a viable backup to Robinson, however Gardner had not played enough to say that his future was brighter than the man that just accomplished what Robinson did.

In 2011, it wasn't always perfect, but Robinson led Michigan to an 11-2 record, wins over rivals Notre Dame and Ohio State, ending a seven-game losing to the Buckeyes, and a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.

In beating Nebraska and OSU, it looked like it was coming together for Robinson as he completed 25 of 35 attempts for 347 yards and five touchdowns with a single pick (a pass efficiency rating of 196.14). He also rushed for 253 yards and four touchdowns in those two games. And there was every reason to believe that that QB had arrived and would thrive in his second season under Al Borges, in his senior campaign.

Seemingly, no one was arguing in the spring and summer against the decision the coaches made to move Gardner to wide receiver to get one of U-M's best athletes on the field. In fact, everyone was applauding the move because it showed ingenuity and a willingness to do what was best for the entire team, utilizing a talent in a role that could prove beneficial for all parties involved.

Early in the year, Gardner showed plenty of very good signs he could be a difference-maker at the position, catching 11 balls for 195 yards and three touchdowns in the first four games, in leading U-M's wideouts in all three categories.

One of those games was Notre Dame, and yes, Robinson played poorly, throwing four interceptions (on four consecutive passes) and probably should have sat for a series just to clear his mind. But was Gardner the answer to relieve him at that moment? Not after playing and practicing almost exclusively at wide receiver for all of fall practice and in September.

Should Gardner have seen more reps at QB? In hindsight, one can argue yes, but there was a question about his commitment level. Gardner himself admitted that he wasn't giving his all to his quarterback opportunities, and in terms of preparation, he had fallen behind Russell Bellomy.

Were there motivating factors, likely him thinking he had little chance to be the QB in 2012? Yes. But he also said repeatedly when he was a receiver that he wanted to be the starting QB in 2013, and if that's the case then you have to take advantage of every rep you receive, no matter how many, to begin proving to the coaches that you, and not Bellomy, should be the guy next season.

So as the season unfolded, Gardner kept seeing more snaps at wide receiver, less at QB, and Bellomy saw more and more at quarterback. No one seems to have a problem until Nebraska, but by then, Gardner shouldn't have been the first choice to replace an injured Robinson.

Should he have played in the fourth quarter? Probably. There was nothing to lose at that point, and it was clear Bellomy wasn't capable of leading U-M to a victory. Gardner may have sparked the Maize and Blue, but with limited reps (taking into account how the first seven weeks and preseason camp had unfolded), there's a chance he falls flat on his face just as much as there is that he plays well.

But let's pause for a moment - was there a call at any time in the first seven games (certainly not after Michigan State a week earlier) for Gardner to be the quarterback and for Robinson to have been a utility player? Perhaps only once, against Notre Dame, but only after Robinson had faltered drastically. Even then, with U-M trailing by just a touchdown, and based on Robinson's past heroics against the Irish, many believed he was still capable of something great in the fourth quarter.

With Robinson injured, and out for Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa (as a QB), Gardner plays superbly, and every critic, who up until that point hadn't said a thing, is now openly questioning why Gardner wasn't the quarterback from the get-go, suggesting Hoke didn't make his team's best interest the first priority, dismissing the fact that Michigan was 16-4 in Robinson's first 20 starts.

A legitimate beef arrives in Columbus. Was Denard misused against Ohio State? Probably, though he had just closed out the half with a 67-yard touchdown run from the quarterback position. Still, should he have played the role he did against Iowa and South Carolina? Most likely because in doing so it put two of the Wolverines best players on the field at the same time, challenging the OSU defense.

Should he have been playing that role all along? Folks are now acting like they saw this coming a mile away, but the truth is, there was sufficient proof that Robinson at QB and Gardner at WR was the best combination, and to argue that what was best for the team for the past two years was to flip that, is simply ignoring real life and how the past two seasons actually unfolded.

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