Last year, Denard Robinson appeared totally unprepared to play quarterback at the college level. This spring, he's fighting for the starting quarterback position. So how should Michigan fans react -- Is it time to freak out? Prepare for Pat White II?
The reasons for freaking out are clear enough. Robinson didn't just struggle at quarterback last year, he basically could not play the position at all. Excluding Delaware State, Robinson completed less than 41% of his passes. Of the passes he threw that were caught by anybody, more than a quarter were caught by players not wearing a winged helmet. Worst of all, the coaches didn't trust Robinson to run the basic option running plays in the offense. His running was therefore mostly limited to "catch the snap and go," which defenses had little trouble stopping. The notion that a player even resembling the Denard Robinson of 2009 might take the helm at quarterback is, obviously, an unsettling prospect.
What's even more concerning is what this prospect seems to say about Tate Forcier. After a full season of starting, if he isn't comfortably ahead of Robinson, something must be wrong, right?
Not necessarily. I'd hazard that Robinson's bid to start is about 25% Forcier not improving as much as the coaches hoped, 25% the coaches trying to send a message to Forcier to work harder, and 50% Robinson making a huge leap from his freshman year.
Remember, Robinson is a player who, under normal conditions, would never have seen the field. He didn't enroll early, and he had no spread offense experience in high school. He was less prepared for the offense than the average freshman quarterback. And the average freshman quarterback redshirts. Remember how clueless even players like Tom Brady and John Navarre looked their first time under center? (Brady's first college pass looked like he was having a backyard catch with a UCLA linebacker.) Those guys were already in their second year on campus, and they weren't transitioning to a totally different offense than the one they ran in high school.
All this is to say that Robinson's freshman season, off-the-charts bad though it may have been, should be seen as a pure mulligan. It tells us nothing about his abilities as a quarterback, except insofar as it allowed him to display his considerable physical potential. In addition to a lively arm, he showed a rare combination of sprinter speed, elusiveness, and surprising power. He is a totally raw prospect with a very high ceiling.
If you want a hopeful comparison, consider Rick Leach as a freshman. Talk about a statistical train wreck! Leach completed 32% of his passes. 12% of his passes were intercepted. Revisiting these numbers, it's a miracle Bo Schembechler let him throw at all. Of course Leach developed into a great college quarterback, if not a great passer.
Obviously, none of this is to say that Robinson will develop into a star because he had such a terrible freshman year. I'd still bet on Forcier to hold onto the starting position. But Robinson might earn more snaps in 2010. The prospect of him winning the starting job is not out of the question, nor is it a prospect that should terrify Michigan fans.