- Ariel Bond/Daily
BY TIM ROHAN
Daily Sports Writer
Published April 6, 2010
The person with a headstart usually wins the race, right?
Through four weeks of spring practice, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez maintains that the quarterback position is still up for grabs among sophomores Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson and early-enrollee Devin Gardner.
Forcier was an early enrollee himself this time last year, and the Wolverines were facing a much dicier quarterback competition. A year later, Forcier finds himself in camp, having started every game in 2009, splitting snaps with Robinson in a classic position battle.
“There’s no question they’re in a battle for it,” Rodriguez said Tuesday at a press conference. “Tate knows that, and Denard knows that. They’ve probably split equal reps with the first group, not that we have a first team, but with the first group out there. And we’ll continue to do that throughout the spring and see if somebody separates themselves or if they both continue to get better.”
Forcier had an extra spring and all of last summer to get acquainted with Rodriguez’s complicated offense, which helped him win last year’s competition.
As a true freshman, he orchestrated the offense and produced nearly 200 yards per game through the air and on the ground combined. The offense was statistically one of the best in the Big Ten.
Rodriguez and his staff expect a higher level of play out of Forcier in his second season.
“I’ve had a couple of conversations with Tate in particular because he plays that high-profile quarterback position and how we expect him, even though he had some success early as a freshman, how we expect him to continue to progress and get better each and every year,” Rodriguez said. “And Tate’s a very, very competitive guy. And I think he’s a guy that likes challenges. The last couple of practices, he’s responded with that."
Rodriguez left the door open to a setup similar to last season's, with Forcier starting games and Robinson coming in as a change-of-pace quarterback. Rodriguez has said repeatedly that he will play whatever number or combination of quarterbacks they "feel (they) can win with."
“We’re not necessarily wanting one guy to clearly establish himself as much as we want to improve, constant improvement from all those guys,” Rodriguez said.
With his freshman season under his belt and a whole year of learning in the process, Robinson could be readier at this point to challenge Forcier for the starting spot. And taking reps with the first group gives Robinson a more consistent chance to show his stuff than the 2009 season allowed, especially as a passer. Forcier threw 250 more passes than Robinson in 2009.
This time around, though, Rodriguez sees differences in Robinson’s mental grasp of the position.
“More than anything, understanding the offense, particularly things in the passing game and where he should look for the ball, reading defenses,” Rodriguez said of Robinson’s development. “I think he understands our concepts pretty well. … We really worked hard on his fundamentals, and he still has a ways to go. But he’s a talented, talented guy and he loves to play. He’s one of those guys that’s very explosive. You got to have an opportunity for him to touch the ball, and obviously if you’re quarterback, you’re going to touch it every snap.”
Whoever plays quarterback next season will be charged with taking better care of the ball. Michigan had 29 fumbles as a team last year and lost 13 of those to the other team. In Rodriguez’s offense, which features a quarterback who is able to run the ball, limiting fumbles is key.
Normally at this time in the spring, Rodriguez has his quarterbacks wearing a different color jersey to avoid contact. But to make sure that his quarterbacks avoid costly turnovers when running with the ball, Rodriguez has the quarterbacks in full-contact drills.
“It was a major issue for us last year, all year, and particularly at that position,” Rodriguez said of the fumbles. “We’ve got to make sure that they know how to take care of the football in traffic and they can have the proper ball security. And the only way to do that is to get tackled. If the only time you get tackled is in a game, then you worry about do they truly grasp it.”
Taking a couple of extra hits now may also help someone like Gardner learn quickly how important it is to hold onto the ball.
“He carries it out there a little bit like he’s running along in the sandlot,” Rodriguez said, extending his right arm out to mimic carrying the ball away from his body. “Sometimes when you’re a young guy and you’re in the open field, you feel the freedom to carry the ball out there. When you get to this level, the guys chasing you are a little bit faster.”
Gardner is still behind the other two sophomore quarterbacks, due in large part to a lack of experience. But as of now, Rodriguez assures that the race is wide open.
Gardner has progressed during the first eight practices this spring in Rodriguez's eyes. But Rodriguez is careful to point out that it is unfair to put too high of expectations on Gardner too early in his career as a Wolverine.
Rodriguez is certainly looking to improve upon the 15 interceptions the quarterbacks threw as a group last season as well as the fumbling problem.
“We can’t beat ourselves, I know I said that plenty of times last year, but I think we’ll have a better football team,” Rodriguez said. “But we’re not going to have a good enough team to beat ourselves with turnovers and negative yardage play. So that’s been a huge emphasis for us this spring limiting turnovers and as many negatively yardage plays as possible.”