Name: Denard Robinson
Weight: 197 lbs.
High school: Deerfield Beach (FL) Deerfield Beach
Jersey number: #16
Last year: I ranked Robinson #2 and said he would pass for 2,700 yards, rush for 900 yards, and score 28 total touchdowns; I also pegged him for All-Big Ten First Team. He went 142/258 passing (55%) for 2,173 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. He also ran 221 times for 1,176 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and 16 touchdowns.
Last year I took some flak for ranking Robinson #2, placing him behind nose tackle Mike Martin. Considering the defense’s turnaround and Martin’s extremely productive season (64 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks), I feel justified in having made that decision. The offense was already good, but the defense needed to make some huge strides and Martin was a stud in the middle of that defense.
Meanwhile, it’s tough to say that Robinson needed to have a good season for Michigan to be a good team, because Robinson struggled at times. His final numbers were very good in lots of areas (passing yardage, rushing yardage, touchdowns, wins, etc.), but he struggled passing the ball early in the season. Those final numbers included 15 interceptions and a completion percentage of 55%. Out of the top 100 passers in the FBS last season, he tied for the sixth-most interceptions and had the eighth-worst completion percentage. Especially early in the season, he struggled with the transition to a pro-style offense and looked very uncomfortable dropping back from under center.
In the second half of the year, however, offensive coordinator Al Borges started to get a better feel for Robinson’s skills and seemed to simplify the offense for him. Borges seemed to run more shotgun plays while still using multiple tight ends, and Robinson seemed to have a little more consistency and a higher comfort level in the pocket. And while he wasn’t quite as explosive in the running game, he still was the second-best rushing quarterback in yards per game (behind Chandler Harnish from Northern Illinois). He had quite possibly the best performance of his career against Ohio State in November when he was 14/17 passing for 167 yards and 3 touchdowns to go along with 26 carries for 170 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground. His raw numbers were arguably better against teams like Notre Dame and UConn in 2010, but his game management in putting up 40 points and 5 touchdowns against the Buckeyes was outstanding.
This year Robinson is clearly the most important player on the team. The new starters along the defensive line mean that the defense as a whole might take a step back, and that means the offense needs to take a step forward for Michigan to maintain its trajectory toward an elite level. The good thing is that Borges understands him better now and should start the season with better offensive play calls. The bad thing is that Robinson lost his favorite target in Junior Hemingway, a solid guy in Martavious Odoms, and a pretty good tight end in Kevin Koger. Those players are being replaced by Roy Roundtree (likely a step down from Hemingway), Drew Dileo (a step down from Odoms), and a combination of Brandon Moore/Devin Funchess (Moore is a step down, while Funchess might provide a spark in the passing game). He does have a couple wild cards in Jeremy Jackson, who could catch some of those jump balls downfield but doesn’t have much speed, and backup quarterback/part-time receiver Devin Gardner, who has oodles of talent but zero experience at wide receiver.
So. What happens in 2012? Robinson should cut down on those interceptions because he understands the offense better, even though he’ll still probably toss up some jump balls that come down in the hands of guys wearing different-colored jerseys. He will still be fast and run the ball a lot. Along with Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, Robinson is one of two preseason Big Ten favorites to enter the Heisman race. He will probably throw too many picks and lose too many games to win the award, but he’s clearly the biggest star quarterback in the conference. Very good things will happen. Great things probably won’t. There’s probably no national championship or Heisman coming this season, but Robinson will solidify himself as an all-time Wolverine great, if he hasn’t done so already.
And if Robinson gets hurt for any significant portion of the season, the whole thing goes plop. Gardner has a lot of talent but makes questionable decisions, and #3 quarterback Russell Bellomy looks like he’s a year or two away from being a Big Ten-quality starter.
Prediction: Starting quarterback; 2,400 yards passing; 1,200 yards rushing; 34 total touchdowns, 10 interceptions; First Team All-Big Ten; Second Team All-American; Heisman finalist