Denard Robinson key to UM's offense
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Before Michigan started spring practice last month, new Wolverines offensive coordinator Al Borges offered star quarterback Denard Robinson a few words of advice.
"Make plays, and let the good Lord make miracles," Borges told Robinson.
For good measure, Borges also threw in this nugget: "You run for yards, you pass for miles."
As the Brady Hoke era begins at Michigan, Robinson's progress in Borges' West Coast offense might dictate how successful the Wolverines will be in 2011. As a sophomore in 2010, Robinson became the first player in NCAA history to run and pass for more than 1,500 yards in the same season. He was named Big Ten MVP and Offensive Player of the Year and finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting.
But Robinson's work load took its toll on his 6-foot, 193-pound body, and former UM coach Rich Rodriguez's fast-paced, no-huddle offense wore down the Wolverines' woeful defense.
Rodriguez was fired after a 7-6 season, and Hoke, a former Michigan assistant, was hired from San Diego State to replace him.
Finding ways to keep Robinson healthy was one of the new coaching staff's biggest priorities. Robinson left parts of 10 games last season because of injuries.
"We want to keep him around in the game," Borges said. "I'd like for the kid to be able to start and finish."
While Hoke seems committed to getting Robinson more help this coming season, putting the ball in Robinson's hands as much as possible is probably the Wolverines' best chance at winning games.
"We're smart enough not to put square pegs in round holes," Hoke said. "With the abilities Denard has, there will be [running] elements we'll use."
In Rodriguez's offense last season, Robinson passed for 2,570 yards with 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, while running for 1,702 yards with 14 scores. Borges still wants Robinson to run this coming season, but he also wants him sitting in the pocket more and handing the ball off to running backs, instead of taking off at the first sign of trouble.
More than anything else, Hoke doesn't want Robinson shouldering the entire load on offense. Michigan's tailbacks will be more involved in the running game, after Robinson had 120 more rushing attempts than any other UM player last season, and its tight ends will have a much larger role in the passing game.
"We want to have a balanced distribution of the ball in an aggressive style," Borges said. "More people are going to touch the football, but [Robinson] is still the focal point."
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Robinson gained about 10 pounds during the offseason and is now tipping the scales at more than 200 pounds. Michigan's coaches also want him diving and running out of bounds more often to avoid direct hits.
"That's something I've got to start doing: Go out of bounds, sometimes sliding, which I don't like doing," Robinson said. "But sometimes I have to do that. I never think about sliding, so when I'm running the ball, I feel like I'm going to either score or get the first down. That's how I look at it."
Helping Michigan's defense stay off the field is as paramount to its success as keeping Robinson healthy. The Wolverines ranked No. 113 nationally in time of possession in 2010, controlling the ball for only 27 minutes, 10 seconds per game.
Michigan's offense averaged 488.7 yards and 32.8 points per game; its opponents averaged 450.8 yards and 35.2 points.
This coming season, the Wolverines will huddle more to control the clock and keep their defense on the sideline for long stretches.
Perhaps the biggest change is that Robinson will take snaps from center, after working out of the shotgun exclusively the past two seasons.
We want to have a balanced distribution of the ball in an aggressive style. More people are going to touch the football, but [Robinson] is still the focal point.” -- Michigan OC Al Borges
"He's done a heck of a job," Borges said. "The mechanics are so different. The guy is very comfortable. He was an under-center quarterback in high school, so it's not completely new to him. I think the drop mechanics are probably the biggest change for him, how to time the throws, how to three-step drop, how to get it out quick, just some of the things he hasn't done a lot of."
Borges said he has been impressed with Robinson's accuracy. He completed 62.5 percent of his passes last season.
"The kid is an accurate passer, that's the first thing that jumps out at me," Borges said. "When a guy is open, he's going to hit him more often than not. And when he isn't open, he's got a way to create like no one I've ever had before. I've had guys like that, but not quite as dynamic a runner."
Robinson, a native of Deerfield Beach, Fla., said he never really considered leaving Michigan after Rodriguez was fired. After running the pro-style offense during spring practice, Robinson said he's comfortable with Borges' scheme.
"At first, I was nervous," Robinson said. "I did well in the spread and I was just like, 'All right, let's see if you really want to do it.' I always keep my attitude positive. I'm living life, and I've got an opportunity to play football, something that I love to do. Every day I come out, I'm happy and I'm grateful that God gave me the opportunity."
Borges, who is installing his pro-style offense at his seventh different FBS team, said he anticipates calling more designed quarterback runs than he ever has before. But Borges also said he won't ask Robinson to run nearly 20 times per game, like he did last season.
"I actually thought that might be a struggle," Borges said. "There are instances I want him to tuck and run; as long as we're using good judgment, we certainly don't want to put that fire out. You don't coach him like other kids I've coached. You have to give him a chance to do what he does."
In Saturday's spring game, Robinson ran 55 yards on his first play from scrimmage. He finished with 60 rushing yards on six attempts, while completing 5 of 14 passes for 70 yards.
At times in the spring game, backup Devin Gardner looked more comfortable taking snaps from center. At 6-foot-4, Gardner is a more prototypical quarterback for a pro-style offense.
Before the spring game, Borges said Robinson had done enough during spring practice to keep the starting job.
"At this point, Denard is our quarterback," Borges said. "I have every reason to believe he's going to be our quarterback. But everything is pending."
Borges says the Wolverines are far from a finished product on offense, starting with their quarterbacks.
"In the eight or nine times I've had to change jobs over my career, I think this group has been as receptive to what we want to do as much as any group I've ever been around," Borges said. "That's a real tribute to them because they had a good offensive football team here a year ago. Everybody to this point has really bought into what we've presented to them and it makes it easy to coach them because they have."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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