The idea was born just after spring football ended, when it became apparent that Al Borges would have to find a way to get Devin Gardner on the field.
The Michigan coaches weren’t willing rotate quarterbacks series by series, so something creative had to be the solution.
The offensive-minded guru dug deep, contemplating ways to get the 6-foot-4 sophomore Gardner on the field at the same time as the dynamic junior Denard Robinson. Borges remembered a formation the San Diego Chargers used to run back in the late 1980s, early 1990s — they used to put a skill position player at quarterback who could throw the ball, and move the quarterback elsewhere. It was a part of former Chargers’ offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese’s playbook.
From there, Borges tinkered.
“As soon as you see something that fits your personnel, you tap it and see what it looks like,” Borges said. “It may not fit today’s football — that was a long time ago — but maybe it does.”
For a mind like Borges’s the possibilities are endless, having Robinson lined up in the backfield with two other running backs and Gardner under center. All four can run the ball, and if junior running back Vincent Smith is back there, three of them can throw it too.
Robinson took handoffs, faked like he was throwing the ball, acted like a decoy and ran an option play too — all in just four plays.
“Yeah, I mean we haven’t done (anything) out of it yet that we can do,” Robinson said Monday with a wide smile. “It’s going to be kinda fun to do it.”
Added Borges: “(In) Big Ten play, we’ll empty the drawer more as we go now.”
As Michigan enters the beef of its Big Ten schedule this weekend on the road against Northwestern, Borges and Michigan coach Brady Hoke accomplished what they wanted with the package: involve Gardner on offense and scare other teams silly with Robinson.
“Part of that positive is people now (have to) work on it,” Hoke said. “That’s just one more thing as a defensive coach — you only have so many hours a day and so much time on the practice field — that’s another piece to the puzzle.”
With his arm, Robinson put together another piece of his own puzzle against the Golden Gophers, competing the first 11 passes he attempted and finishing the day — all two-and-a-half quarters worth — completing 15-of-19 for 169 yards and two touchdowns.
For weeks, Robinson had been swallowed by questions due to his poor mechanics and even worse results. After leading a thrilling comeback victory with his arm, he threw for less than 100 yards in back-to-back games before hitting his stride against Minnesota. Borges decided prior to the game that he needed to call plays getting Robinson into a rhythm with short-to-intermediate routes.
Right from Robinson’s first pass — a curl route to Jeremy Gallon — that’s exactly what Michigan did.
Robinson and his receivers had worked on their timing, making sure the ball was coming out when the receivers expected it on the quarterback’s three and five-step drops. Even though Minnesota hardly pressured Robinson, it was easy to tell his footwork and mechanics were on point.
“We worked on it pretty good,” Borges said. “And he took it to heart. He was stressing that he wasn’t throwing well. He’s a better passer, I’ve told you that before.
“He got his screws in the ground pretty good and transferred through most of the throws, and he was pretty much on the money. And he touched a few balls nice, too. He dropped a couple balls in, and the key to passing is it’s a finesse art.”
Now Robinson has to put it all together — running, passing intermediate, and throwing the deep bombs he didn’t attempt against Minnesota. Once that happens, the game will open up, Borges explained, because throwing the ball downfield — or at least attempting to — keeps the defense honest and frees up space to run.
Still, seeing his passes completed did something to boost his confidence, Robinson said, because even though they’d done that all summer, it wasn’t clicking in games.
“I told him when I came here, ‘We’re going to see what we can do,’ ” Borges said. “And I knew there was going to be some developmental pain here because it’s so different the way we coach a quarterback, but as he gets his feet on the ground literally and figuratively, you’re going to see he’ll make more and more headway as we go.”