A year ago, as the Michigan football team took the field for its annual spring game, high school senior Denard Robinson stood on the sidelines at the Big House.
Donning his bright red and yellow Deerfield Beach High School letterman jacket, the dual-threat quarterback looked on as early enrollee quarterback Tate Forcier impressed Michigan fans and coaches to the tune of three touchdowns through the air.
But in this year’s edition, Robinson didn’t spend much time on the sidelines.
The sophomore, who contributed mostly with his legs last season, threw three touchdowns and ran for one Saturday while working with the first-team offense, standing out in comparison to the other two quarterbacks in contention to start — Forcier and early enrollee Devin Gardner.
“He’s developed a whole new aspect of his game as far as making great reads and making great throws,” senior defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen said. “His throws are on lasers now, he’s not throwing balls up for grabs. He’s putting it right on receivers. … He’s dangerous and he’s probably made the most progression (this spring).”
“He’s always had the ability to throw it,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez added.
Backed up to his own three-yard line, Robinson stood comfortably in the pocket and delivered a rope straight into the hands of sophomore wideout Roy Roundtree who had been streaking on a post route over the middle of the field. Roundtree took the catch the distance, completing the scrimmage’s most electrifying play— 97 yards long — and solidifying Robinson’s impressive performance.
After the game, Roundtree insisted that Robinson’s improved passing ability has become obvious over the course of the spring, as he has focused more on adding touch to his throws.
Without that necessary touch last season, Robinson threw four interceptions to just two touchdowns.
“His arm is way better than it was freshman year,” Roundtree said. “He’s not throwing it as hard like he was, jamming people’s fingers.”
The talk surrounding Robinson’s spring maturation had been getting louder and louder as spring practices went on, and with Robinson’s performance Saturday in front of 35,000 fans, the talk of him challenging incumbent starter Forcier’s job is now at its loudest.
But Rodriguez insists that the competition remains too close to call, with all three quarterbacks making strides in the spring’s 15 practices.
“I’m pleased that they’ve gotten better (but) nobody has taken the position and grabbed it,” Rodriguez said. “I was hoping more than one guy would anyway… I don’t know if it will be solved, who’s the No. 1 guy, by the first game.”
Forcier — who had injured his ankle in practice on Thursday — looked much less impressive than he did in his first spring game, nearly throwing an interception on his second play of the afternoon while also losing a fumble.
After leading Michigan to a 4-0 start last season, Forcier’s production dropped off significantly in the second half of the season, as the Wolverines stumbled to a 5-7 finish.
Despite the well-publicized battle between Robinson and Forcier, the day’s biggest ovation came when an entirely different signal caller took the field.
Gardner, whose hype had preceded him as the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback, struggled at first in his debut in the Big House, fumbling his first snap and throwing an interception. But his potential was obvious as the game went on, as he launched a perfectly thrown deep ball to junior slot receiver Martavious Odoms late in the scrimmage, which Odoms let fall between his hands.
“Tate and Denard are a little bit ahead of Devin,” Rodriguez said. “They have a little more experience.”
Despite the fact that Robinson’s performance took place in a spring scrimmage, his obvious improvement in the passing game could open the door to him being named the winner of Michigan’s quarterback battle.
As he stood on the sidelines last spring, even then, Robinson knew being in the starting lineup could be in the cards for him.
“I’ve got a pretty good chance,” Robinson told the Daily after last year’s spring game about his opportunity for playing time last fall. “That’s my gut feeling, but the coaches are telling me I’ve got a chance to start.”
And that chance could be drawing near in his second season, as spring practices end and the summer competition heats up under center.