(Editor’s Note: Eric Galko is the Director of Scouting for the website OptimumScouting.com and has been nice enough to offer his services to Crystal Ball Run, profiling a 2013 NFL Draft hopeful in this space every week.
In his first profile, Galko will look at one of the most intriguing, controversial and fascinating players in the class: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson clearly has the athleticism to play in the NFL, but the question boils down to: What position will he play?
Being successful in college football, and eventually in the NFL, relies for almost every player to be able to consistently do two things: develop and adapt. College is where most players can either develop to their peak or at least get closer to realizing their skill set. For some athletes, that’s hard enough.
For a raw, developmental quarterback/athlete like Michigan’s Denard Robinson, he needed a lot of work as a passer before he’d be ready to be consistent in the Big Ten. His sophomore season had him included in the Heisman race by mid-season, and ending 6th in the final voting at season’s end. But a new coach (Brady Hoke) and a new offense (Al Borges) meant that the running-focused days of Denard Robinson were coming to an end, and Robinson needed to progress as a more complete quarterback.
While he’ll need to progress as a quarterback to take Michigan to the National Championship level, it may be almost as important for him to realize where he stands as an NFL prospect. And that’s where things get tricky.
Listed at 6’0, 195, Denard Robinson has very little chance of being an NFL quarterback. As a quarterback, he struggles mightily to make progressions in the pocket. His footwork gets very sloppy, he doesn’t subtly move to evade pressure without scrambling, and struggles to read inside-out. He gets good velocity when he’s throwing timing passes where he can set his feet. But his lack of consistent footwork on the outside and consistent velocity and timing on outside throws has been a major reason for his struggles in Brady Hoke’s slightly more pro-read offense.
That’s not to say he can’t further develop as a quarterback in year two. Robinson was a productive passer in high school despite being considered an “athlete” by Rivals.com. He actually ran just 217 times as a 3 year starter in high school, beating teams with his arm more consistently than with his legs, as was the case early in his career at Michigan. Those 217 carries in his entire career actually are less than his total rushing carries in both his sophomore and junior seasons at Michigan.
Things changed quickly at Michigan however. In Rich Rodriguez’s run option attack, Robinson was coveted for his athleticism and running style. He even made an appearance at running back as a freshman. And as a sophomore, he quickly surpassed Tate Forcier as the lead man, leading Michigan to maybe it’s more exciting season of the RichRod era and being in the Heisman discussion through much of the year.
So what can we expect for the end of the Denard Robinson chapter at Michigan? I’d expect the 5.9 yards per carry he’s had over his career to remain the same, with maybe fewer carries as he further develops as a pocket passer. I’d also expect more games with more passing yards than rushing yards this season despite the split being even over his career thus far.
He should be able to pass Antwan Randle El for most rushing yards for a quarterback in Big Ten history, needing just 666 yards to do so. He’s already had 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons (one of four players to do that twice in a career), and that should be easy to accomplish if he stays healthy. The Michigan program took a big step forward both with developing a more complete offense as well as a consistently impressive defense.
With Penn State still in turmoil as a program, Michigan State and Wisconsin losing their impactful starting quarterbacks, and Ohio State’s and Nebraska’s quarterbacks still far from developed, it seems like Michigan could have one of the most stable quarterback situation among the top tier teams in the Big Ten. In his second year with San Diego State, he was a mere 16 points (losses @Missouri, @BYU, @TCU and vs. Utah) from an undefeated season.
Things could be much better in year two at Michigan. And if they hope to reach national prominence this year, it’ll likely rest on Denard Robinson’s shoulders, something that, if healthy, his playmaking ability and anticipated progression as a passer can certainly accomplish. Robinson could be leaving Michigan as one of the most prolific Big Ten rushing quarterbacks, throughout NCAA record books, have a chance for a national title, and be in the Heisman discussion.
Under Brady Hoke and Al Borges last year, Michigan’s offense took a step forward. But Robinson seemed to take a minor step back in his abilities. However, those inconsistencies as a passer and struggles to adapt to a more balanced offense may have been the best things for Robinson’s future as well as for NFL scouts.
Outside of Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, few quarterbacks under 6’0 have shown the ability to be an NFL pocket passer consistently. And while I’m sure we’ll here diehard Wolverine fans clamor for the Michael Vick comparison, he’s not as consistently explosive with open field moves nor as quick twitched in his pocket escapability as Vick was.
The three other quarterbacks in NCAA history with two seasons of 2,000+ passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards are the 49ers quarterback of the future Colin Kaepernick, and two very comparable players: Joe Webb of the Vikings and Brad Smith of the Bills. Both have flashed abilities as passers (Webb especially), but both have shown ability as receivers and add depth there as well. Despite being 2-3 inches taller, Brad Smith may be a fantastic comparison for Robinson.
Robinson won’t be an NFL quarterback full-time, barring major improvements from his mechanics and footwork this year and more consistent Michael Vick-like NFL level escapability. But his ability as a slot receiver, kick returner, and situational rusher could make him a coveted mid-rounder on draft day. He ran a 4.32 forty time in high school, and that timed speed combined with his obviously impressive downfield speed and big play ability.
It’s not easy to adapt to the NFL game for athletes like Denard Robinson. But if he can improve as a passer and show better football IQ this season, that’ll impress NFL teams, especially if he continues to win as a passer. It’ll be more important, however, to be willing to adapt (unlike Pat White) to the NFL game and a new position. Robinson impresses statistically, as a runner, and testing-wise. But it’ll take more than pure speed and athletic ability to last in the NFL, and Robinson better be prepared for that.
Eric Galko covers the NFL Draft and NFL whole as the Director of Scouting for OptimumScouting.com, and will be writing an NFL Draft profile for Crystal Ball Run every Friday.
Be sure to follow him on Twitter @OptimumScouting.