Monday, August 20, 2012

What to expect: Quarterbacks 2012

Russell Bellomy (aka Poor Man's Tate), a wide receiver, and Denard

Projected Starter: The Man Known by One Name
Prior to last year's season, I tried to project how Denard would fare based on his performance from the previous year on passing downs. The results:

Denard Robinson
Completion %
Passing Yards
Rushing Yards
2010 62.50% 8.8 2,570 18/11 6.6 1,702
Projected 2011 59% 7.5 1,950 15/15 7 900
Actual 2011 55% 8.4 2,173 20/15 5.3 1,176

Though his numbers dropped noticeably from his 2010 highs, the projected numbers, while pessimistic, were closer than not. The shift away from Rich Rodriguez's Denard-first offense saw #16's stats dip significantly, no more so than in his completion percentage and rushing numbers, both of which were to be expected as the team transitioned to a more "traditional" offense.

The good news: Michigan went 11-2 last year with Denard under center. The bad news: I don't expect him to improve much--if at all--this year, and Michigan's schedule becomes significantly more difficult.

Though Denard showed an uncanny ability to get lucky last year, his Leaping Leprechaun (Junior Hemingway) has departed for the NFL leaving him with Rodriguez's surplus of slot receivers to fight for downfield jumpballs. These will, predictably, not end as well as they did last year, when Hemingway was able to pull down seemingly everything thrown his way. Not only hasn't any Michigan receiver shown an ability to go up and fight for balls like Hemingway, but few even have the size to do so. The only hope is for Devin Gardner's (not pictured above) wide receiver potential to be fully realized early in the year.

Even with Hemingway's services, Denard's interceptions jumped last year. Much of this was from ill-fated passes thrown under pressure, but he also locked onto receivers and threw into double coverage... a lot. Though he only had three games where he threw multiple interceptions (ND, SDSU, Northwestern), Denard also avoided giving the ball away in only three games (Western Michigan, Minnesota, OSU). Al Borges is aware of these problems. From his book "Coaching the West Coast Quarterback", there's a section called "Cause of Interceptions" which lists...
  • Forcing the ball into coverage; not taking what the defense gives; not seeing throwing lanes.
  • Late throws in the middle of the defense.
  • Panic throws under pressure (e.g., desperately avoiding a sack).
  • Under-thrown deep balls. (The quarterback should throw it where only the good guy can get it.)
  • Throwing the ball in traffic with poor weight transfer (i.e., against a big pass rush).
...among other things. You could lump most of Denard's bad passes last year into at least one of those categories. Unfortunately, those rules are independent of Borges' system. Those are passes that every quarterback knows not to make. Entering his third year as a starter and his senior season, if Denard hasn't already learned not to make those throws, he probably never will learn. Count on Denard to average about an interception--to 1.5--per game.

That's the pessimistic angle (the one that makes more sense in my brain) though. The other side of the coin is Denard, Heisman Contender. While I think that's possible, he's going to need to show significant mprovement over last year while playing a more difficult schedule (don't undersell this as a potential explanation for a lack of improvement from Denard). I've never seen a quarterback go from Year 1 to Year 2 under Borges/Hoke, so I'm not really sure what to expect. Early camp reports say Denard is playing extremely well, but camp reports are camp reports. Can Denard surpass his numbers from last year? Yes, but he won't come close to his breakout 2010 season, the kind of numbers he would need really lock down the Heisman.

Realistically, given the lack of wide receiver talent (about which more later this week), Denard's totals will probably remain the same while things like his yards per attempt drop as his deep jump balls increasingly fall to the turn.

The Backups: Not a Wide Receiver, Russell Bellomy
With Devin Gardner finally (finally!) moving to wide receiver, hopefully for good, we can all agree that his time under center at Michigan is over. Despite his exceptional athletic gifts and dual-threatness, he possesses all of the mechanical problems Denard does without two years of playing time and proven performances. He will bolster a wide receiving corps that is in desperate need of playmakers.

If/when Denard does come out of the game, he'll be relieved by redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy, a three-star dual threat type out of Texas. I call him a poor man's Tate Forcier because, well, he is: a scrambly, pass-first type lacking top-end athleticism or arm strength. Bellomy looked Totally Serviceable in the spring game this year throwing dump down passes. I said after the spring game:
Russell Bellomy came in as the nominal #2 quarterback. Despite my desire to see Gardner move to wide receiver, I'm not sure I want Bellomy as Denard's backup. He showed good pocket presence and some ability to make plays, but he has a high school arm and only decent accuracy. He's not a quality backup yet.
Unfortunately, that's probably where Michigan is at this year. Sacrifice all of your spare goats for Denard's health lest Michigan turn into Purdue with a better offensive line. Should Bellomy have to go in for an extended period of time this year, expect lots of under center, I-formation hand offs and roll outs. Bellomy may have the skillset to run the traditional West Coast offense with quick slants and hitches, but that will only get this team so far. It's Denard or bust, but it's been that way for the last two years already.


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