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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)    
10.43   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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The Robinson Factor

Another year, another sophomore exploding on the scene.

Michigan’s Denard Robinson has turned the Heisman race upside down with his other-worldly performances the past two weeks.  If the vote were held today, he would win.

It is an old saw in Heisman circles that to win the trophy, you must either beat Notre Dame or play for Notre Dame.  Well, Robinson beat the Irish in about as impressive and dramatic a fashion as possible.

So what’s next in store for Michigan’s Mr. Robinson?

Is there any reason to think he’ll slow down in the next few games? Sure, there is a thought that he might not hold up to the rigors of the schedule since he handles the ball so much.  But the Wolverines take on Massachussetts, Bowling Green, Indiana and Michigan State in the next four weeks.  Six games into the season, barring injury, Robinson should still rank among the nation’s leaders in rushing and total offense. 

At that point, he’ll be tested, as Michigan hosts Iowa and travels to Penn State.  Then there is Illinois and Purdue before two major clashes to close the season against Wisconsin and Ohio State.

If the Heisman gods were truly shining upon us, that Wolverines-Buckeyes battle could shape up to be a Pryor-Robinson headliner, with the winner taking home the Heisman.

It’s all in Robinson’s hands.  Believe it or not, the Heisman is his to lose right now.  It’s a notion that was almost unthinkable a couple week ago.  But there it is: I don’t think anyone else in the country can match his ‘spectacular’ factor when he is on his game.  Since he is a one-man show for a traditional power, he’ll be given a little bit of leeway even if he doesn’t put up 500 yards every time out.  Amazingly, a 2,000/2,000 season is not out of the question for him–he’s probably the first player who has ever had a realistic shot at that mark.

There is still a lot of football to be played, but no one has started the season out better against more quality opponents than Robinson. 

It’s him and everyone else right now.

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