On Monday, Michigan football coach Brady Hoke remained uncertain of whether senior quarterback Denard Robinson will be available to start Saturday afternoon against Northwestern.
Against Nebraska on Oct. 27, Robinson scrambled in the second quarter and fell on his throwing elbow, damaging a nerve that affects his grip on the ball. Last Saturday, against Minnesota, junior quarterback and wide receiver Devin Gardner successfully filled in and led the Wolverines to a 35-13 victory.
After the game, Hoke said that he was “very optimistic” that Robinson would be healthy enough to start this weekend. But on Monday, his rhetoric didn’t purvey the same type of confidence.
“Well, (Robinson) will practice,” Hoke said. “He’ll split some time there, and we’ll see. He’s getting healthier. He’s just improving slowly.”
Hoke mentioned that Robinson did a full workout on Sunday night that involved a little bit of everything — throwing, running, etc. — but admitted that Sundays are a bit lighter than the rest of the week.
Though he didn’t seem certain about Robinson’s status against Northwestern, he confidently negated any notion that Robinson’s injury will nag him throughout the remainder of the season. In the meantime, Gardner will practice at both quarterback and wide receiver.
“I think we’ll probably (practice Gardner) a little bit in both, but more quarterback than the wide out position,” Hoke said.
If Robinson is healthy enough to play, Hoke said that Gardner playing some snaps in a game at wide receiver is a possibility. He’s not yet sure if he’d be willing to have them split snaps at quarterback, though.
“I think that’s too far down the road,” Hoke said. “We’ll definitely have a plan.”
But if Robinson isn’t ready, Hoke at least has a viable option at quarterback, given Gardner’s solid performance against Minnesota. He threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns on 12-of-18 passing, and he rushed for 21 yards and another touchdown.
Gardner, like Robinson, has the unique ability to extend broken plays, which was especially evident when he found junior wide receiver Drew Dileo for a 45-yard touchdown strike after scrambling east and west outside of the pocket.
“Some of the good things — extending plays out and then being productive with it, finding a place to push up in the pocket, delivering the ball — he’s always been a guy that’s kept his eyes down the field when he is in that situation,” Hoke said. “And he probably was in more of those than we’d like because we’ve got to do a better job of protecting.”
Still, Gardner needs to be aware of the fine line that exists between when he should extend the play and when he should just throw the ball away. Hoke said that Gardner, who was sacked three times and tossed an interception when throwing on the run against Minnesota, needs to work on that balance.
Even though the offensive line didn’t have the best performance on Saturday, Gardner’s dual-threat style provides a relatively easy transition for the linemen.
“I’ve been dealing with that for four years with Denard,” said redshirt junior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan. “I have no idea where the kid’s going whenever. You get used to it. The ability to break down plays and make something out of it — that’s a special quality.”
The big difference between Gardner and Robinson is what goes on before the play. Though both are able to break the pocket, Robinson is better suited for the read option in the shotgun formation because of his quickness. Gardner takes fewer designed runs.
“We’re more under center with Devin, and part of that is all of the play action,” Hoke said. “We haven’t been underneath as much with Denard in the football game because of the other elements he brings with the read play and the ride and all those things.”
Hoke affirmed that Gardner could still execute all of the designed runs, and he continues to practice them during the week. Whether he could execute them during the game is another question.
“It’s easy to do things in practice, but live action when the bullets are truly flying is when you prove you can do things,” Gardner said.
The question remains — will the bullets be flying at Gardner or Robinson this weekend? We’ll wait and see.