[Ed.: Chris has returned to provide expert analysis in his regular Monday Morning Quarterback feature this season. He's a former Air Force quarterback, so he knows a thing or two about the game - especially the quarterback position. He assures us he'll be rooting for Michigan on Sept. 8]
If you’re anything like me, and you probably are since you’re taking the time to read this, you have been counting down the days until the Wolverines take the field again.
With just over two weeks remaining until the season opener, I’d like to take a look at some of the improvements that I’m hoping to see in quarterback Denard Robinson in his final season in the maize and blue. As you can see in the table to the right, nearly all of his numbers were down in 2011, but I believe that can be explained by a more productive running game and an overall better scheme called by offensive coordinator Al Borges.
While the numbers from 2011 don’t show improvement, Robinson did what he needed to do to help the Michigan offense move the ball and put points on the board. Some of his intangibles which don’t show up in his stats, such as leadership in the huddle and on the sideline, also contributed to the team’s success. Overall, Borges and Brady Hoke did a great job of bringing in a new offensive philosophy, while at the same time still keeping in mind Denard’s strengths as an athlete.
All of us who watched Denard throughout the season in 2011 had our moments when we cringed watching him throw a pass off his back foot, or late down the middle of the field. Of course, it’s easy for us to do so while we sit in the comfort of our living rooms. Meanwhile, Denard has to make split-second decisions with 300-pound defensive linemen closing in on him. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not going to crush Denard for making the decisions that he does. Ultimately, the guy is just out there trying to make plays and help his team win.
Decision making at the quarterback position is really a matter of the coaching that he’s getting anyway. The better that coaching is, the better decisions Denard will make during a game. During the offseason, this takes place most often in the film room watching tape and in front of a grease board drawing up plays. This is where quarterbacks learn to read defensive schemes and secondary coverages by looking at their keys, and make pre-snap reads.
By studying on film how a defense lines up against a certain formation and how they react when the ball is snapped, a quarterback is better able to visualize which of his receivers are most likely to be open on a given play. During the quarterback’s dropback, he just has to make a read of what the defender(s) are doing and throw to the correct receiver. This is much easier said than done, especially during a real game, but that’s how it supposed to work.
What I am hoping to see in terms of improvement from Denard this season has more to do with his mechanics. Denard already does a lot of things very well from a mechanics perspective. As you can see from the picture to the right, he holds the ball high and to his chest and keeps his eyes looking downfield while in the pocket. This is the starting place for all throws. If the ball is down, say by the quarterback’s waist, he has to bring the ball up high on his chest to start the throwing motion. If the ball is already there, as Denard does it, then he is able to get the ball out of his hands quicker. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but the split second in which it takes the QB to bring the ball up to the proper throwing position is often the difference between a completed pass and an interception.
Also, a QB who keeps his eyes looking downfield is one who is reading the defense and will find receivers when they come open. This is something that Denard has done well over the last couple of years. Often times, QBs who are good athletes and good at running out of the pocket will bring their eyes down to look at the pass rush while they look for an open hole to run through. Denard has been able to avoid that pitfall thus far.
Something that Denard has struggled with in the past has been not setting his feet to throw and not pointing his non-throwing shoulder at his intended target. Take a look at the picture to the left from last year’s game against Eastern Michigan. This is obviously a picture of Denard not properly getting his feet set. Yes, I can see the defender right there in his face and Denard is trying to make a play. But a better choice would have been to pull the ball down, take a few quick steps away from the defender, re-set his feet, and throw the ball to the open receiver. Maybe this ball was completed, but more often than not, throws like this result in balls that don’t have much on them and end up getting floated to the receiver instead of thrown with some power, thus making it more likely that the pass is thrown incomplete, or worse yet, intercepted by the defense.
At right is a picture of Denard from last year’s Notre Dame game that shows proper footwork. In terms of setting up to throw, I like the way that he has set up with his feet underneath him and he is stepping into the throw with his lead foot. I’d like to see his left foot pointed a little more toward the target, but the angle from which the picture was taken makes it difficult to know where exactly the receiver is. I’ll give Denard the benefit of the doubt and say that this was most likely a good pass.
At left is a good example of Denard getting his feet under him to make a throw. This picture was taken as Denard was on the run, stepping up into the pocket. You can see how his feet are underneath him and not too spread apart. His arm is cocked back and ready to come forward to make the throw and his left foot is about to come off the ground as he steps into the throw and releases the ball. This resulted in a 20-yard completion to a wide open Kevin Koger. In my opinion, Denard has improved in his ability to throw on the move throughout the last three-plus years. This is especially
important, as his athleticism gives him the ability to escape bad situations in the pocket and make throws while moving outside the pocket.
One thing that you and I are all too familiar with is those moments in the game where we see Denard throwing off his back foot while leaning backward and away from his receiver. As if you needed to see it again, the picture to the right from last year’s Northwestern game illustrates what I’m talking about. This may even be one of those jump passes like I spoke about earlier. Either way, unless the receiver is WIDE open or he is throwing the ball away, there is no reason to throw the ball like this. Passes like this get intercepted, or best case, get knocked down. I don’t think I need to say anything more about that given the number of times we’ve seen that over the last three years. Has he gotten better? Yes. But as a senior quarterback and this being his third year as a starter, there’s no way this should be happening this season.
The good thing, however, is that these things can be corrected over time with footwork and throwing drills. These are simple drills which reinforce proper feet and shoulder alignment when throwing to a target.
For example, we have seen a number of times when Denard is forced out of the pocket and he is scrambling for his life while looking downfield for an open receiver. Finally, with the defense hot on his heels, Denard finds the tight end open near the sideline and quickly throws the ball to him. However, the ball sails out of his hand and flies out of bounds 10 feet above the receiver’s head. Or, in some cases, the ball is thrown low and hits the ground hear the receiver’s feet.
This doesn’t happen because Denard is purposely throwing it there. It happens because Denard didn’t properly set his feet to throw or, in the case where he was throwing on the run, didn’t get his shoulders properly turned toward the target. There are a number of drills that can reinforce these basic quarterback fundamentals, which I am confident that Borges had all of his quarterbacks working on during the offseason.
Between the off-field coaching and quarterback drills which Denard took part in as part of his offseason routine this summer, my hope is that come September 1 in Dallas we will all see a more polished quarterback leading the Michigan offense. The less he has to think about his mechanics, the more time he can spend on reading the defense and making quality throws to open receivers.
Denard certainly has the ability to be a great quarterback and have a sensational senior year. Here’s to hoping that he put in the work over the offseason to make that happen. Knowing what I do about Denard Robinson and his work ethic, I don’t think that’s going to be an issue. Happy football season! GO BLUE!!