LINCOLN — This past offseason, Michigan backup quarterback Devin Gardner started lining up at wide receiver in practice, and a redshirt freshman quarterback named Russell Bellomy was thrust into the limelight.
With memories of his solid spring game performance still fresh (and Gardner’s abysmal performance), there was speculation that Bellomy would move up the depth chart to the spot behind behind starting quarterback Denard Robinson, especially if Gardner wasn’t practicing under center full time.
Sure enough, early in the season, Michigan coach Brady Hoke tapped Bellomy for possibly the least desirable job promotion this country has to offer: backing up one of the most dynamic players in the history of college football. Yes, the safety valve for the Wolverines’ all-time leader in total offense is now Bellomy, an unheralded recruit out of Arlington, Tex. who Scout.com ranked the 39th-best quarterback in the high school class of 2011.
Basically, if Bellomy is in the game for any moment that isn’t garbage time, it’s bad news for an offense that revolves almost completely around its quarterback.
Still, coaches sang Bellomy’s praise in the preseason. Offensive coordinator Al Borges was unwavering. Bellomy is apparently a bright kid who understands the offense and hits his throws in practice.
In practice. But Memorial Stadium in primetime in front of Nebraska’s Sea of Red and ESPN cameras isn’t the same thing as Al Glick Fieldhouse.
Robinson went down in the second quarter against the Cornhuskers on Saturday, aggravating nerve damage in his elbow that was affecting his grip on the football, and Michigan’s offense became stagnant immediately. In the red zone, Bellomy kept the ball for a one-yard gain and then threw a pair of incomplete passes, and Michigan had to settle for a field goal before the half.
“He seemed like he was pretty good,” Hoke said. “I mean, Russ is very competitive. He really wants to do well, studies. He does all the things that a quarterback should do. He’s going to be fine.”
Regardless of how Bellomy wanted to play, he was miserable in the spotlight. He finished the contest a horrendous 3-for-16 passing, with three interceptions.
Granted, a few of his throws were dropped — redshirt junior receiver Jeremy Gallon dropped two passes and freshman tight end Devin Funchess dropped another — but on others, happy feet led to throws that were well off the mark. The running game didn’t help out much, either, as redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint continued to struggle this season.
Some credit has to go to Nebraska’s defense, which brought a lot of pressure, and Bellomy doesn’t have the experience nor the speed that Robinson has to counter that.
“The one thing they did in some third-and-long situations, they could be a little risker,” Hoke said. “You could bring maybe two linebackers, where before … you got to be a little more careful because of what Denard can do if he finds an opening or a crease.”
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini corroborated Hoke’s account after the game, admitting that he brought more pressure than he would have against Robinson, especially in third-down situations.
Still, Bellomy lacked any semblance of pocket presence, as he was sacked twice and made some questionable reads on the option. The quarterback is supposed to be a viable backup option, yet he crumbled under pressure.
Excluding the series in which he entered the game for Robinson, Bellomy didn’t complete a single pass over the next four drives, not until the final minutes of the third quarter. And the 12-yard reception by fullback Joe Kerridge was only possible because a pair of Nebraska penalties on third down the previous play extended Michigan’s drive.
Bellomy’s teammates didn’t say a whole lot after the game. It’s hard to find the right words to sum up a performance like that.
“I’m sure it’s not the situation that he would’ve dreamed of for him in his first significant playing time,” said fifth-year senior Patrick Omameh. “But he stepped up when he had to and did his best when he was in there.”
Hoke said after the game that he expects Robinson will be ready to play next week. And for an offense that has not scored for its last eight quarters of football, that’s good news.