Denard Robinson’s harshest critic may be Denard Robinson.
The lovable, always-smiling Robinson turns on himself when he watches film on Sundays, chiding himself with each missed receiver, missed opportunity.
“I beat myself up about it,” said Robinson, who has rushed for 552 yards but has passed for just 624 in four games.
During games, his head hangs with each poor play.
“He always puts all of the blame all on himself, even though he doesn’t deserve it,” said senior tight end Kevin Koger. “I tell him all the time, ‘You’re being too hard on yourself. We’ve got to help you out a little bit.’ ”
Then Koger pulls Robinson aside and tells him a joke.
“He laughs,” Koger said. “But he laughs at everything so it really isn’t that hard.”
That’s the kind of quarterback Michigan coach Brady Hoke is dealing with.
Hoke refused to put all the blame on Robinson for the Wolverines’ measly 93 yards passing in last Saturday’s 28-7 win over San Diego State. That’s why Koger doesn’t want Robinson to get too down on himself.
“We’ve just got to get open,” Koger said. “We’re not being very detailed in our execution right now. I mean, receivers running routes at different depths and dropping passes. So we’ve just got to help him out. Everyone’s putting the blame on him, but it’s not really on him.”
Still, Robinson isn’t smiling when he talks about what he and Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges talk about after they watch the film. His footwork is still a “work in progress.” But Robinson said he’s practicing well. At one point during fall camp, the coaches said he completed 70 percent of his passes. Now, practice isn’t carrying over to the games.
“(Borges) just told me, little things we need to work on,” Robinson said. “It’s all fixable, we just need to keep harping on it, keep beating it and try to get it out.”
It doesn’t help that opposing teams are scheming their entire defenses around stopping Robinson, Borges said last week. The looks and plays Borges and Robinson prepare for during the week are completely different come game time, and then there’s an adjustment period as Borges figures out how to attack it.
That also throws off the receivers’ routes, when they have to adjust to different looks.
The result: Michigan is 110th in Division-I football with 156 passing yards per game, Robinson has a sub-par 49-percent completion rate and he has thrown six interceptions.
On his first interception Saturday, he said he took his eye off of the cornerback that jumped the pass. Then he forced a ball to Koger on the second interception, after he had stepped up in the pocket with plenty of room to run. He said he should’ve moved to the next read in his progression.
Eventually, the progression would’ve told Robinson to take off. And it appeared he had plenty of room to run when he decided to throw to Koger.
“Once you get to the fourth one, or you get to your third hitch, that’s when it’s time to go,” Robinson said.
“The main thing coach says is, ‘Don’t miss the open man.’ If it’s not open, that’s when you run. If it’s open you don’t miss it. You always keep your eyes down field even though you’re making your move through the pocket.”
His running ability and his good health four games into the season are both main reasons why Michigan is 4-0 and ranked No. 19. Even though he’s carried the ball 18 times per game — three less runs per game last season — more of his runs have been between the tackles, running the quarterback power play.
The once-fragile Robinson hasn’t left a game this season due to injury, after exiting each of the first four games last season for one ailment or another.
He may beat himself up, but opponents aren’t beating up Robinson anymore. Now, he said he knows how to recover after games, working with the Michigan trainers.
“Sometimes now you can play through the soreness, if you’ve got soreness,” Robinson said. “And you’re used to it. Now you go into the treatment, and you get in the cold tub and you know what to do now to take care of yourself.”
Despite the poor passing day, Robinson’s 200-yard, three-touchdown rushing performance was good enough to earn him Co-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors. A player whose quarterback rating was less than 70 — in comparison to his 194 rating against Notre Dame — won the honor for the second time this season.
“I think numbers can lie,” Robinson said, defending his progress. “I think I grew this year (as a passer) and I’m better than I was last year.”
He noted that his reads and pocket presence have improved. But the growing pains continue. Leaving former coach Rich Rodriguez’s spread-option attack for a more traditional pro-style passing offense has looked ugly at times as Robinson and his receivers find their way.
“It was hard to predict (the offense’s success) because it wasn’t always hitting on all cylinders like we had in the past,” said fifth-year senior David Molk. “We aren’t just throwing Denard’s yards left and right. I’m happy where it is but it can get a lot better.
“But at the same time, if we can run the ball like we do we’re OK.”
Thus is the enigma of Robinson’s 2011 season.