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With Robinson injury and questions swirling, Michigan waits for response

Erin Kirkland/Daily
Junior wide receiver Devin Gardner and redshirt freshman quarterback Russell Bellomy could be called on at QB. Buy this photo

By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 1, 2012

As usual, Michigan coach Brady Hoke spoke this week in a stream of staccatos, punctuated by a heavy serving of periods and peppered with colloquialisms that didn’t reveal much. He favored phrases like “we’ll see” and spoke often in the conditional, saying that senior quarterback Denard Robinson should be ready without straying into the land of the unequivocal will. That’s how Hoke prefers it, especially in a week when a declaration about the quarterback position would change so much.

In this week of uncertainty, Hoke rendered no certainties of his own. Robinson should play Saturday against Minnesota, despite a nerve injury to his right elbow, Hoke said. His status, though, might not be decided until kickoff. Junior wide receiver Devin Gardner has taken the bulk of the reps at quarterback, but redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy could still get the nod.

“(Robinson’s) better,” Hoke said on Wednesday, adding that Michigan is planning on him starting. “It’s not all the way cleared up yet, but it’s better.”

Hoke said he didn’t think Robinson would sit out, saying, “We’re counting on him,” but he noted that he could make the decision as late as the kickoff on Saturday.

Suddenly, the game itself has been thrust into uncertainty by the fragile right elbow of Michigan’s star. With Robinson in the game, Minnesota (1-3 Big Ten, 5-3 overall) is no match for Michigan, on paper at least. Michigan (3-1, 5-3) rolled to a 58-0 victory in last year’s skirmish for the Little Brown Jug. Without Robinson, though, the game is as as questionable as Bellomy’s arm or Gardner’s transition back from receiver, both major question marks.

The situation is the most delicate thus far in Hoke’s tenure. At once, he must balance the health of Robinson, Michigan’s best player, with the fact that Michigan cannot afford another loss in the conference. He must weigh placing a heavy burden on the tenuous shoulders of a redshirt freshman quarterback, Bellomy, instead of the more experienced Gardner. And he and offensive coordinator Al Borges must accelerate two months worth of quarterback reps into one week for Gardner.

All the while, Michigan must find a way to jump start to its stagnant offense which hasn’t scored a touchdown in more than two games. As the defense has improved dramatically from week to week, the offense has been mired in stagnation, and the Wolverines have found little success outside of Robinson’s legs. In relief of Robinson on Saturday, Bellomy did not pose a running threat. Borges cautions that he is more dynamic than he showed.

“Russ is not a wood man back there,” Borges. “He can actually get out of the way. So we just don’t do quite as much of that.”

No option is perfect, and Hoke has been limited by a few factors out of his control. For one, moving Gardner to receiver wouldn’t have even been an option if not for a lack of wide-receiver depth. And Hoke simply hasn’t had enough time to recruit and suitably develop young quarterback talent, like Bellomy.

Yet Hoke’s decision will likely be his most scrutinized in his time at Michigan. Last year, he pushed all the right buttons as the Wolverines cruised to a surprising Sugar Bowl berth and victory. With a deeper receiving corps, Gardner was a serviceable backup for Robinson, and a breakout season from then-redshirt-sophomore tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint took the pressure off whatever quarterback was in the game. Last season, Robinson accounted for 67 percent of the Michigan offense. This year, with Gardner at receiver and Toussaint stifled, that figure has ballooned to 77 percent.

Still, it’s been business as usual this week for Michigan, save for the absence of any quarterbacks at the week’s media sessions. Robinson has spoken with the media every week but this, and Gardner has made several appearances in the past. Both quarterbacks, in addition to Bellomy, were not made available. But Hoke stayed tight-lipped, and he praised the team for an especially good week of practices. Gardner has taken the most snaps at quarterback as the Wolverines try to re-transition him after they moved him to receiver at the beginning of the year.

Hoke and Borges indicated that Bellomy and Gardner would compete for the starting job if Robinson can’t go. If Robinson does start, Gardner will move back to receiver. Bellomy was just 3-for-16 with three interceptions in Michigan’s loss to Nebraska last week.

After losses, Hoke is 4-0 in his time at Michigan. And he is especially active in practices following a loss, according to fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer.

“He’s very good at ‘Put that game behind you, learn from the mistakes, and let’s go,’ ” Mealer said. “He comes out to practice fired up like we’re playing for the Super Bowl or something.”

For Michigan, it’s an infusion of confidence in its most uncertain week in Hoke’s time here. It’s an early response to the Wolverines’ most pressing questions. Will the offense return? Will Michigan rebound this time?

And even if Robinson can go, who will provide the answers?