Denard Robinson: Quarterback 2.0

One of the things I like to opine about on this site is the evolution of football systems and positions.

About five years ago, I spent a lot of time and energy writing about the emergence of the spread and how it would change college football–yes, even the crusty offenses of the SEC.  I admit I didn’t always get all the minor details or predictions right (I famously thought that Boise would beat Georgia in 2006), but the big picture was overwhelmingly correct:  Offense was no longer going to be played in a phone booth, the entire field would finally be used, deception was on the rise and the quarterback position was changing.

But back then, the notion of the spread being dominant in college football was controversial.  It would never work in the SEC, said the average blogger, who had eaten his three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust wheaties every morning for breakfast for as long as he could remember and couldn’t quite wrap his head around the concept.  Now, most teams in college football run some form of the spread and it is the pro style attacks that are the dinosaurs in retreat.

The apotheosis of the modern day spread offense and its quarterback was the Florida offense and Tim Tebow.  He was a freak of nature at the position–6-3, 245 pounds, with 4.6 speed to go with his brute power and amazing durability.  Once he established himself as a highly efficient and productive passer, the dye was cast and there was very little defenses could do to stop him. 

Tebow was the next step up in the evolutionary process from Vince Young, who captained a cruder form of the spread for Texas, but who was equally effective running and passing.  Alas, Young went to the NFL before he could take college quarterbacking to an even higher level than he did in 2005, but the possibilities we saw with him were quite intriguing.

That’s because both Tebow and Young possessed skill sets that 10 or 15 years ago would have been applied toward other positions.  They would have been victims of the soft bigotry of quarterbacking expectations (to paraphrase a recent President).  In 1995, Young–who has ideal NFL quarterback size and legitimate NFL running back ability–would’ve been turned into a defensive end or tight end.  Tebow would’ve been made a fullback, linebacker or H-back (they still want to).  Back then, the quarterback position was reserved almost exclusively for the 6-4, 230-pound, mostly immobile and stiff, but strong-armed signal caller who was taught to slide under contact and hand the ball off.  Offenses were content on many plays to go 10 against 11 (once the quarterback handed the ball off, he was not involved with the play).  This, naturally, was an advantage for the defense.

The spread changed all that.  Many quarterbacks were now threats to run on every play, depending on how they read the defense.  This brought the equation back to 11 on 11, putting offenses on equal footing with their opponents.  Even worse for the defense, the spread would often ‘read’ one defender out of a play without having to use an offensive player to block him.  That gave the advantage to the offense, 11 to 10.  When a defense is outnumbered and doesn’t know where a play is going, it is in trouble.

And now we have come to the latest evolution in the quarterback position, personified by Michigan’s Denard Robinson.  Simply put, he is the first major conference quarterback who possesses the skill set of an elite cornerback or wide receiver.  He is arguably the fastest person ever to play the quarterback position full time.  This is not a conclusion I come to based upon a shoddy 40-yard dash clocking or by hearsay, but through quantifiable and verifiable measurements provided to us by the sport of track and field.

Here is the list of top 100 meter times from the 2009 high school track season provided by Track and Field News.com:

10.30   Randall Carroll (Cathedral, Los Angeles, Ca)    
10.32   Dentarius Locke (Chamberlain, Tampa, Fl)    
    Kenneth Gilstrap (Miller Grove, Lithonia, Ga)    
10.33   Ryan Milus (Hamilton, Chandler, Az)    
10.34   *Prezel Hardy (Ellison, Killeen, Tx)    
10.39   *Garic Wharton (Valley, Las Vegas, Nv)    
    *Fuquawn Greene (New Bern, NC)    
10.40(A)   Jeremy Rankin (Overland, Aurora, Co)    
10.41   Marquise Goodwin (Rowlett, Tx)    
    Charles Silmon (Waco, Tx)    
(10)
10.43   Skye Dawson (Dallas Christian, Mesquite, Tx)    
    Joeal Hotchkins (Chaparral, Las Vegas, Nv)    
10.44   Denard Robinson (Deerfield Beach, Fl)    
10.45   Shaun Murray (Liberty, Henderson, Nv)    
    *Trey Franks (West Orange-Stark, Orange, Tx)    
10.46   Andre Debose (Seminole, Sanford, Fl)    
10.47   *Blake Heriot (Lincoln, Gahanna, Oh)    
    Matthew Terrell (Davis, Indianapolis, In)    
10.48   **Bradley Sylve (South Plaquemines, Port Sulphur, La)    
10.49   Hunter Furr (Mt Tabor, Winston-Salem, NC)

A couple things to note here.  As you can see, Robinson recorded the 12th-fastest time among all high school boys who ran the 100 meters in 2009.  Among that list are some names you probably know and some names you don’t know.  You’ll probably recognize that he is ahead of the highly-recruited Andre Debose of Florida–acclaimed by many to be in the mold of Percy Harvin (himself a 10.43 sprinter).  And he is just a notch behind TCU wideout Skye Dawson and Texas’s Marquise Goodwin (also a world class long jumper and the second-fastest man in college football).  But he is also firmly ensconced among a bevy of top-flight track athletes who are set to shine in the collegiate sprints, most notably Florida’s Blake Heriot.  For a football player, much less one who plays quarterback, this is elite company indeed.

[Note: Some will argue that Robert Griffin of Baylor might be faster and I don't necessarily disagree.  However, Griffin's prime event--the 400m hurdles--does not always translate into on-field quickness the way the shorter sprints do and, besides, he is recovering from an injured knee and I doubt he has kept the same level of speed as in the past.  Also, Bert Emanuel of Rice--a somewhat successful college quarterback moved to wide out in the pros--was a 25 foot long jumper in high school and is certainly worthy of consideration as well.]

So why is this speed issue important?  Simply put, 10 years ago or even five years ago, Robinson would have been playing cornerback or wide receiver.  It would have been a no-brainer, given his body type.  The thought of taking a guy with that kind of speed and putting the ball in his hands on every down was deemed, strangely enough, not prudent.

I posit that what we are seeing happen with Robinson in his first two games is no accident.  His putting up 885 yards of offense in two games is not happenstance, or some kind of weird aligning of the planets.

No.  What we are seeing is evidence of what can happen when you take a truly elite athlete and put him at the quarterback position in the spread offense and let him touch the ball on every down.  We’ve never seen a quarterback do something quite like this before because it’s never really been tried.  Hence, there is nothing to compare it to.  That he is being tutored by one of the fathers of the spread helps even more, not to mention the fact that he clearly has some innate football instincts–and magic–to go along with his tremendous athleticism. 

The key to all of this is his dramatic improvement as a passer.  Two games in, he is completing 69 percent of his throws for 430 yards and has yet to throw an interception in 62 attempts.  This is not a matter of a running quarterback hitting a few passes to keep the defenses honest–his arm actually complements his running and is a threat unto itself.  One element of his game will undoubtedly be shut down one day by a committed defense, but it is unlikely that both will be kept in check, at least given what we know so far (which is not to say that he won’t have struggles of his own doing at some point).

I think that Robinson’s success at quarterback could have a galvanizing effect among some of the more innovative coaches out there.  Instead of mindlessly slotting sprinters to play on the perimeter where they rarely come in contact with the ball, some coaches will try them at quarterback so they can touch the ball every down.  Everyone will be on the lookout for the next Robinson.  Of course, a sprinter who can actually play quarterback is still a rare thing and it will require change at the high school–and even Pop Warner–levels first for this to be more wide-spread.  But I think it’s going to happen.  It just makes too much sense.  Even now, the best athlete on a high school team tends to play quarterback, but then he is more often than not switched to corner or receiver once he is in college because he does not fit the system or some outdated image of what a quarterback should look like.  But imagine if elite athletes like Bo Jackson or Ted Ginn had been groomed to be quarterbacks from an early age and had been allowed to stay there when they got to college.  Football would be a lot different today, that’s for sure.

I am not ready to anoint Robinson as the greatest player ever, or even as the best player this year, just yet.  There’s a long way to go in that regard. 

But I do think that his instant success at the quarterback position illustrates exactly what can happen when you take the best athlete on the field and just give him the damn ball…on every play!

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Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.

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39 Responses to Denard Robinson: Quarterback 2.0

  1. Ed Newman September 14, 2010 at 6:01 am #

    I like your enthusiasm! Robinson may be some sort of game changer and 5 years from now everyone will have someone like him. TP, Robert Griffin, and Jake Locker might all be the best athletes on their teams right now. But you’re getting a little ahead of yourself, Sparky.

    Tate Forcier had a good first two weeks last year (you had him as getting some Heisman votes in your Sept 14 “If the vote were held today” column) but didn’t make much of a dent the rest of the way and is now on the bench, maybe as the third stringer. Robert Griffin wound up injured. Denard has a lot of season left and the meat of his schedule still to come. You were right in your early assessment of Tebow, wrong with Jacory Harris. You’ve had a woody for Michigan and Miami and their star players the last few years. I think I’ll wait and see.

  2. Geaux Blue September 14, 2010 at 6:59 am #

    Just to further your point, consider the following from his 2009 recruitment profile

    His FAKE 40 time, as you might imagine, is outstandingly so: he ran a 4.33 at Florida’s “Friday Night Lights” camp, which is probably generous but was also the fastest time anyone turned in at a loaded event. That was no fluke, either. At an early Scout combine he put up a 4.39, and was named the best QB in attendance. He even had a FAKE 100 time, a Free Press-reported 10.28 (now paywalled) that The Diag, sadly, debunked.

  3. Tim Davis September 14, 2010 at 7:10 am #

    Ed! I don’t think you read the whole article guy. He clearly stated in the second to last paragraph, “I am not ready to anoint Robinson as the greatest player ever, or even as the best player this year, just yet. There’s a long way to go in that regard.”

    That said, while DRob still has a long way to go, I think he’s tough enough to withstand it. Plus, I don’t think he’s taking as big of a pounding as some people think. Being that elusive helps you to not get hit quite as hard.

  4. Jacob September 14, 2010 at 7:42 am #

    Sorry, but Ted Ginn is not an elite athlete.

  5. HP September 14, 2010 at 8:37 am #

    ED: The reason I did no write a “Tate Forcier: QB 2.0″ article, despite being impressed by his play as a freshman, is that he never ran 10.44 in the 100m. This is not just about being the best athlete on one’s team, but about having an elite or unique athletic gift at this position. This is not about just a player having a good start, but the reasons for why his start is so good.

    Jacob: No need to apologize for not knowing anything about Ted Ginn’s track background.

  6. Sean September 14, 2010 at 12:08 pm #

    The thing I worry about Robinson- is the thing that makes him so different from a Tebow or a Young- his lack of size- I just wonder if he can take the hits he’s taking for an entire year- I mean’s he’s averaging a near Tebow level of carries but isn’t 240- I just worry he might be like Pat White- unstoppable with a couple of weeks off (witness White’s bowl record) but a guy who will miss and/or be sub-prime during the late season stretch run.

  7. Talpostal September 14, 2010 at 12:26 pm #

    As a Michigan fan I’m surprised to see no mention of Mike Vick here. Is Denard really that much better of an athlete than him?

  8. slippy September 14, 2010 at 12:41 pm #

    Jacob that is a completely ridiculous statement. He may not be an elite football player at the highest level, but elite athlete he is.

  9. Daniel September 14, 2010 at 1:14 pm #

    Michael Vick was the first person who came to mind when I saw Robinson against Notre Dame.
    How fast is Robinson compared to Vick?

  10. Ed Newman September 14, 2010 at 1:21 pm #

    The point I’m making is not that Robinson isn’t an elite athlete at a position and in a system where you historically haven’t seen them, it’s that Robinson and the system are SO good that it will redefine the position. The trend is already to put these athletes at QB (see Tebow, Locker, Pryor, Vick, Griffin, and going back a few decades, Elway. Yes, they are all have elite gifts even if they all don’t have elite speed). Before we anoint Robinson the second coming and predict his lasting impact, let’s see him do it for something approaching a full season without injury in variable weather after good defenses have a chance to game plan for him. That’s all.

  11. Anonymous September 14, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    I’m impressed with Denard, but I agree with Ed. He’s got to show he can do this against better teams and over the course of an entire season. Speed can kill a defense, but it also kills on impact.

  12. Bucknut September 14, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    Pryor himself has been clocked at 4.33 in the 40 yard dash. He might not look like it because he’s taking long strides with his long legs. Great read though HP. The spread has completely revolutionized the game. Still Robinson won’t have a field day with the Bucks, and I believe they will make him one dimensional.

  13. HP September 14, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    Ed, all those guy are nice athletes, even amazing athletes in some cases.

    But Robinson is a different class, is my contention. Not only is faster than any of the players you list, his build is much different. As I pointed out, in any other situation, he’s a cornerback or wide out, and not just any corner or WR, but an elite one due to his sub-10.5 speed.

    I think the reason we have even had these two games in a row like this is due to his physical abilities. If he were just another guy like Locker or Elway, do you really think he would’ve had 500 yards?

  14. HP September 14, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    Ed, all those guy are nice athletes, even amazing athletes in some cases.

    But Robinson is a different class, is my contention. Not only is faster than any of the players you list, his build is much different. As I pointed out, in any other situation, he’s a cornerback or wide out, and not just any corner or WR, but an elite one due to his sub-10.5 speed.

    I think the reason we have even had these two games in a row like this is due to his physical abilities. If he were just another guy like Locker or Elway, do you really think he would’ve had 500 yards?

  15. HP September 14, 2010 at 4:04 pm #

    Bucknut, I’m not talking bogus hand timed 40 yard dashes, but legitimate electronically timed 100m dashes under uniform conditions. A much different situation. Pryor is a special athlete, but he’s not the first guy to be QB with his skill set (unlike Robinson).

  16. Bucknut September 14, 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    And Ted Ginn would be questionable at the QB position. He does have a great track record, that’s why he was such a great return man. Think if they would have kicked off at the 30 then instead of the 35. Might have broken the NCAA record.

    • Heismanpundit September 14, 2010 at 4:06 pm #

      If Ted Ginn had been groomed to be a quarterback from the time he was 12 or 13, as many QBs are, he would’ve been an incredible QB. As it was, he played QB in HS and dominated.

  17. HP September 14, 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    Daniel, I don’t think Vick ever ran track and if he did I’m not sure he would top 10.5 in the 100m.

  18. Bucknut September 14, 2010 at 4:08 pm #

    I totally agree HP.

  19. Bucknut September 14, 2010 at 4:09 pm #

    How did Ted Ginn play QB. He and Troy Smith both went to Cleveland Glenville, and Smith was the QB.

  20. Bucknut September 14, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    Ginn played for his father, Ted Ginn, Sr., in high school at Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio, where he played Defensive back and receiver.

  21. Bucknut September 14, 2010 at 4:21 pm #

    Overall I understand what you’re saying HP. Robinson is a “hybrid” QB. I will say I’ve never seen anything like him and thought he should have started last year over Tater Tot Forcier.

  22. Heismanpundit September 14, 2010 at 4:22 pm #

    Ginn played a lot of QB a a senior at Glenville. I saw the tape.

  23. Bucknut September 14, 2010 at 5:15 pm #

    He might have played shotgun like in a wildcat. Hell he did that at Ohio State direct snap. But he was NEVER the designated starting qb. I live in Ohio and I’ve studied all the recruits that come through. Alot of our players come from the Cleveland Glenville Tarblooders. It’s pretty much our biggest pipeline. And as I already stated Troy Smith was the starting QB, and took MOST of the snaps.

  24. Bucknut September 14, 2010 at 5:21 pm #

    You are correct HP though he did play QB. Just not alot compared to the other positions he played. That’s all I’m saying.

  25. Wade September 14, 2010 at 5:32 pm #

    Shoelace is the most eletric player in the country, fans all over love him, the media love him, ESPN, NBC, Si, WSJ ETC.. The coaches love him. He wins every award his name goes up for. Lets just face it, he is the best player in college football right now.

  26. Anonymous September 14, 2010 at 5:40 pm #

    Ginn’s 2004 stats:
    Passing 932 yards, 12 TDs
    Rushing 845 yards, 17 TDs

  27. Alex September 15, 2010 at 6:14 am #

    I think we can safely say that Vick was at least at the same level when it comes to football speed. I don’t really care what Vick could have done on the track, because he was clearly the faster player on the field in every NFL game he played in. We’ve never seen a QB that simply destroyed pursuit angles like he did at the NFL level. I don’t need a track time to tell me that his speed was at the same level as Robinson’s.

  28. philnotfil September 15, 2010 at 9:37 am #

    Great article, a definite change in how the quarterback position is viewed. Good point on Tebow/Young/Robinson, that they all would have been put into different positions based on their bodies. I don’t know much of the history of the others, but Tebow switched high schools because the coaches wanted him to play linebacker. And we all know what NFL experts have said about his position in the NFL (TE or FB). This is one of those things that you look at and wonder why they haven’t been doing this all along. Of course you want the ball in the hands of your playmakers more often, why wouldn’t you put one of your playmakers at QB? (and actually teach them how to be a QB)

  29. Derrick September 17, 2010 at 11:48 am #

    FYI your argument 5 years ago was that the spread offense was going to “change the balance of power” in college football. You were wrong. The balance of power hasn’t changed at all. The same teams and the same conferences are still competing for national championships. Alabama and Florida and Ohio State and USC and the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac Ten and on and on and on.

    Nothing really changed. The offenses that teams run are changing, but the balance of power hasn’t changed at all.

  30. HP September 17, 2010 at 2:24 pm #

    Um. When are I wrote that, Florida was not competing for national titles and certainly did not appear primed to win two of the next three. Teams like Oregon were not competing for Pac-10 titles or making a national imprint, nor were teams like Cincinnati going undefeated and making BCS bowls.

    Most of the SEC teams have adopted versions of the spread and that has created more titles for that league. Spread teams like Appalachian State beat Michigan and that caused a coach to be run out, replaced by a spread guy who has a sophomore in the running for the Heisman.

    Yeah, you are right. Nothing has changed.

  31. I Should Not Be Allowed to Watch College Football September 17, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    Derrick is right. The balance of power hasn’t changed. By pretending Derrick said nothing has changed you’re just misquoting him rather than addressing his valid point.

    • Heismanpundit September 17, 2010 at 6:02 pm #

      Well, let’s see.

      When I wrote that in 2005, the SEC had won exactly one national title in seven years.

      Since I wrote specifically that Urban Meyer would dominate the SEC by bringing the spread, he’s won two titles and the SEC has won two more with elements of the spread–and being able to defend it–playing a part in that success.

      Meanwhile, I was an early identifier of Boise’s fantastic scheme and the balance of power has definitely shifted toward a couple great non BCS squads that run these hybrid style offenses.

      Clearly, the balance of power has tilted toward teams that run the spread. Just because some of them happened to be teams that already had talent does not change that. Indeed, it made them far more successful than they had ever been–i.e.–Florida, LSU, Cincinnati, TCU, Oregon and so on and on and on.

  32. Derrick September 17, 2010 at 5:59 pm #

    I’ll repeat that the balance of power hasn’t changed. The same teams are winning the national titles. There are always some fluctuations. Teams rise up and teams fall down all the time. But the biggest names are still the most likely to dominate.

    Look at CFB Datawarehouse’s top teams of all time list. When is the last time a team not ranked in the top 15 won a national title? Answer: Florida State in 1999. And they are no slouch in the last 30 years of CFB.

    The balance of power hasn’t swung at all. You can talk about Cincinnati going undefeated in a crappy conference and then getting their doors blown off in a bowl game as some great accomplishment, but it isn’t. Oregon competing for Pac Ten titles? They did that in 1994.

    BYU finished the season ranked #2 in the nation in 1985, which is still better than anything Boise State or TCU have pulled off recently.

    The haves are still the haves in college football and have much bigger margin for error than the lesser programs.

    • Heismanpundit September 17, 2010 at 6:21 pm #

      You’ve got some inaccuracies in your comment, namely, BYU finished No. 1, not No. 2, following the 1984 season.

      Second, balance of power just doesn’t have to do with winning titles. College football is not just about winning titles. Lots of programs have now relevant in recent years thanks to these new offenses: TCU, Boise, Oregon, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Missouri. No, they didn’t win titles, but if you think they were going to compete by running pro style offenses, you are deluded.

      There’s no doubt that the SEC has gotten more powerful due to the spread hitting the conference. That affected the balance of power, as they have now won four straight titles, two by teams that traditionally haven’t won very many (Florida and LSU).

      Meanwhile, traditional powers that hadn’t been relevant in a while have gotten back to major power status thanks to the spread–see Texas and Oklahoma in the last decade.

      Balance of power shifting can mean a lot of things, as I wrote.

  33. Rocko_and_Socko October 2, 2010 at 9:07 pm #

    Nice research but how in the world could you leave off Michael Vick?

    Sure the guy never ran track but he had the rare abilities to dominate a game played by dominate athletes. A guy who combined track star speed with a rocket arm. You may not have his 100M time but just look at the way he ran away from NFL defenders.

  34. C March 3, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    Anyone notice the other guy running in the green uniform? That’s Patrick Peterson from Ely High School – Pompano Beach. Denard and Patrick both are from broward county. Their hometowns are maybe 5 minutes apart from each other. Rival schools, Ely and Deerfield high school.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Cedars » College Football Rakin’: Week Two - September 15, 2010

    [...] USA Today, ESPN (twice), NBC, Wall Street Journal, Rivals.com, and then all the small town papers. This guy even said Robinson is the next step in the evolution of the ideal spread offense [...]

  2. 5 Thoughts From The Weekend | Heismanpundit - October 4, 2010

    [...] Robinson hits these numbers, he will win no matter what Michigan’s record.  When a player redefines a position, he gets rewarded.  [...]