Denard Robinson Shines as Michigan Starter; Tate Forcier Demoted to Third String

After months of speculation, the Michigan quarterback depth chart was revealed yesterday as the Wolverines took on Connecticut to open the season and won 31-10. True sophomore Denard Robinson got the start and took all but two snaps—true freshman Devin Gardner filled in when Robinson was banged up late in the third quarter. True sophomore Tate Forcier, who started every game for the Wolverines last year, did not play.

It was only one game, but we learned a lot about the Michigan quarterback situation. Starting with, well, the starter and moving our way down the depth chart, here’s what we learned from Saturday.

Denard Robinson
The spring reports were confirmed on Michigan’s opening drive. Before Saturday, you could question Rich Rodriguez’s decision to start Robinson, but not anymore. Robinson’s numbers were off the charts: 19/22, 186 yards, 1 TD passing; 29 carries for 197 yards and 1 TD rushing. The rushing yards were a single-game Michigan record for a QB. The completions were five more than he had all of last season. The one-trick pony from a year ago is suddenly a legitimate dual-threat.

Robinson’s improved throwing motion was noticeable from his first pass. His accuracy, confidence, and decision-making have all improved greatly. The team clearly supports him. He’s an electrifying player, no doubt, and perhaps his biggest asset is that he makes the defense better, too—by keeping it off the field.

Uninformed critics of Rodriguez’s hiring were upset that Michigan was abandoning years of “power football” for the spread offense. But the spread comes in many forms, and yesterday Michigan ran the ball nearly three times more than it threw.

My guess is that number will shift closer to a 50/50 balance as teams realize they have to try and contain Robinson. Connecticut challenged Robinson to beat them with his arm a few times, and he responded by finding receivers down the field. Can he consistently do that?

Devin Gardner
It’s way too early to tell, but as of right now I disagree with Rodriguez’s decision to make Gardner the No. 2. I simply don’t get it. Robinson is the clear starter, fine. But if he were to get hurt, would you rather have a complete unknown or an experienced and competent player as your back-up?

Of course, Rodriguez and his staff have the advantage of watching Gardner (and Forcier) on a daily basis. I do not. But like Rodriguez I saw Forcier in Michigan’s 12 games last season and for the most part, he performed better than expected. I’d be surprised if Gardner could perform that well if forced into meaningful playing time, but maybe I’m wrong.

I do know that Rodriguez is taking a big gamble by making Gardner the second string quarterback. Not only is Gardner a true freshman, but now Forcier, the guy last year, is a non-factor.

(L to R) Gardner, Forcier, and Robinson warm up before Michigan’s Spring Game. (Credit: Pep Sucharikul)

Tate Forcier
Let the transfer rumors begin. It’s pretty incredible how the quarterback who started every game last season has fallen to third on the depth chart. At any point last season it would have been hard to imagine Forcier not starting this season, but the emergence of Robinson put an end to that thought.

I know it’s only one game, but at this point the lone advantage Forcier has on Robinson is experience. And it’s not like Robinson didn’t take any critical snaps last season. Forcier may have looked fast against a slow Notre Dame defense last season, but he does not have turn-the-corner speed. He can’t burst through holes like Robinson can (in all fairness, can anyone?) and turn five-yard runs into 15-yard gains.

Once defenses realized Forcier was far more effective outside of the pocket, they made it a priority to contain him, and that’s when we learned that Forcier is not much of a pocket passer. Last season, when it came to decision-making and accuracy, Forcier was light years ahead of his back-up. After watching Robinson fire missiles between his receivers’ numbers against UConn, I think he has surpassed Forcier as a passer.

Again, I completely understand Rodriguez’s decision to start Robinson (anyone who watched yesterday’s game should, too), but I am confused by Forcier’s fall to third string. Was it a statement move by the coach to spark a fire under the incumbent starter? I don’t think so, since burning Gardner’s redshirt is more than a minor casualty. I would think Forcier would have to be at least slightly better than the freshman version of himself, but even if he didn’t improve at all, my guess is he’s still better than the young Gardner. I hope we don’t have to find out.

It’s important to remember that, again, it was only one game. Last year, Forcier looked a star for the first five games before he started to look like a true freshman. The Wolverines started 4-0 (and got to 5-2) before collapsing down the stretch and failing to qualify for a bowl game. Defenses will tailor their schemes to Robinson, and how he and the rest of the Michigan offense respond will determine how good this offense really is.

At least for one game though, against a supposedly quality opponent, Michigan’s offense looked like a well-oiled machine.

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