Picture Pages: Argh Denard

Submitted by Brian on November 22nd, 2011 at 12:53 PM

For a few weeks now people have been asserting that Denard Robinson has not been right. I wasn't sure what to make of those complaints since we didn't really get to see him in the open field much. After Nebraska, the answer appears to be "speed just fine, thanks" even if Lavonte David did hack him down on a couple of potential big gainers.

But, yeah, I do think something isn't right with Denard. That is not necessarily injury. Against Nebraska I've had more "argh" moments in re: Denard running than I've had in a long time. There was this:

argh robinson argh

That's a scramble on Michigan's botched end-of-half drive on which Denard, presented with a massive hole straight upfield, tries to bounce outside and gets tackled for a three yard gain—in bounds. Michigan ended up getting nothing here when making the really obvious cut (Denard knows the corner will be keeping leverage as his top priority) sees them set up with a first and ten near field goal range or better.

There was this on a play where Martavious Odoms came in motion to be a pitch man:


Denard handed off there when Nebraska had one guy containing two on the edge; Hopkins thumped straight ahead for three yards. Robinson keeps showing up in the run minus category because he's not pulling when the corner opens up like whoah.

Even when Denard did pull he made some inexplicable decisions. Here's one.

It's first and ten on the Michigan something or other and Michigan is in some variety of formation. So is Nebraska. I'm not entirely sure what they are because the director in this game comes from the Michigan Stadium Replay Guy school of framing where everything is a super tight closeup. I assume Michigan is in a standard three-wide set. You can see the slot to the bottom of the screen; M will have a WR on the line outside of him. The other guy could be in a trips formation below or to the top of the screen away outside.

Nebraska appears to be in a straight nickel with a safety as support.


Michigan runs a basic inside zone read, leaving the backside guy unblocked and flaring Koger out.


The above is the mesh point. Robinson is reading the end. The end is square but he is in shuffle mode.


What's shuffle mode?

Remember that period in 2009 when Carlos Brown or Brandon Minor would slam up the backside of the line and run untouched into the endzone? That was Michigan's response to various games defenses were playing with the backside end. The shuffle is the DL's response to that response. He is protecting the soft spot behind the backside tackle that the zone read often causes. He's not really containing the QB, though he's a lot more useful on a keeper than someone screaming down the line. He's more of an RB defender.

Michigan's started seeing this because they brought back the RR H-back inside zone where there is a guy cracking back on this DE.


On the next frame Robinson has just pulled it:


Denard Robinson is Denard Robinson. Koger has flared out to seal the playside linebacker. There is no slot to the top of the screen. Robinson is about to run to the corner for a billio—





Robinson does run past Meredith and David but Huyge can't extend his block on that defensive end, and that defensive end…


…eats Denard after a two yard gain.



Items of interest

Yeah, this is kind of the same thing Scheelhaase did last week. You know, this:

The difference between the plays is that Scheelhaase screwed up his read and pulled when the defensive end was upfield in a QB contain mode. It was a plan B, one that worked. Here Michigan's plan A is "Denard in a race with a defensive end going the other way." That's a good plan. Let's try that.

It does almost work, but Huyge isn't great and he loses his guy. If Michigan sustains that block they get a decent gain.

Note the difference in the defensive ends. Clark is not shuffling down the line. He's a couple yards further outside and a yard in the backfield. Meredith is at the LOS and tucked in behind a Michigan OL. That should be enough to get Denard the corner but…

Denard seems hesitant. I don't know what the deal is. Unless there's something outside the frame that's relevant—not likely—it's really weird that Robinson wouldn't just run outside. Feel the panic in this linebacker:


That is a man going "oh shiiiiiiii" in slo-mo. He's done and Denard pops outside the DE and is dealing with that safety. Maybe he gets five yards. Maybe he gets ALL OF THE YARDS.

In recent weeks it seems like he's been less of a north-south guy. In this game he is way less of a read threat than he needs to be. In just the first half of last week's game you've got the above three plays, a speed option on which Denard cuts all the way to the backside of the line to little effect, and three or four seemingly obvious pull reads he's missed.

It is possible the reads aren't actually reads, but given what Borges has said it seems like they are. I'm not sure we've seen him pitch on the option yet, though. Is it really an option, or is it just a decoy?

The picture painted is of a guy who's thinking, not reacting.

Too much cram cram. This is a downside of not having a true base offense, I think. Lacking reps on all these things, Denard makes mistakes. If the speed option is just another way to run a QB stretch that's because they don't rep the option enough to be comfortable with the pitch. If they miss a bunch of keep reads it's because they're not repping it enough to make that clear to the quarterback.

Remember that last year Michigan largely dumped the read option in favor of just running Denard. This isn't a regression, it's Denard trying to do something he might not have been very  good at last year. That plus an entirely new passing offense means there's a ton on his plate.

We've seen progress in the passing game. They may be emphasizing that since it turns out handing the ball to Toussaint isn't that bad of an idea even when it's a bad idea. Hopefully Michigan can get some of this corrected over the next week because Denard left a lot of yards on the field even when Lavonte David wasn't tackling him by his ankles.


Indiana Blue

November 22nd, 2011 at 1:12 PM ^

which are completely based on last year, do support some level of digression in terms of Denard's looking to break the long run this season.  Brian's first example was an obvious "big play" opportunity as Denard may have had this year.  This same opportunity last year generated huge TD runs against ND and Indiana.  No way was Denard looking for the sidelines last year, and as a result BIG plays.

I do think there is a priority on having Denard take fewer hits .... and he has been told to use the sidelines to avoid some contact, but IMO Denard is being a little "too" cautious this year.  That said, his passing has looked much better the last 2 games ... and no disregard to Devin - but Denard on the field still give us the best chance for points.

Go Blue!


November 22nd, 2011 at 1:12 PM ^

Question: If the coaches recognize this and just pound into Denard that he should run to open places if they're there, is there any way this is remedied this week against OSU?


November 22nd, 2011 at 1:16 PM ^

He's been asked to do so much the last 2 years. Especially this year, with the Borges quote of "I'm asking him to do more than I've ever asked a QB to do" (or some such similar quote). Remember, he gets a whole offseason to learn with these guys this time. And bowl practices, and he'll be a senior. Michigan 2011 is awesome, can't wait for 2012.

That said. Beat Ohio.


November 22nd, 2011 at 1:21 PM ^

The play where Denard should bounce to the outside: I remember seeing that live and thinking to myself..."Why didn't he bounce outside! It's so obvious! Aarrrrrrggggg!"

I was hoping Brian would give a good explanation for why he didn't in the UFR (or i guess pic pages)...but looks like there really isn't a good explanation? I don't think there is anything going on to the top of the screen because Denard doesn't look to his left, he keeps looking downfield. 

It definetely looks like Denard is more hesitant, I dunno whats up...hope it resolves soon!


November 22nd, 2011 at 1:28 PM ^

You hit both nails on the head.

Nail 1: Denard is thinking too much.  The kid is very coachable, and while that can be an incredible asset, when the things on which he has been coached have not yet been learned to the level of near-instinct, it can cause a lot of slowing.  You can almost see Denard think, "Am I too anxious to scramble here?  Maybe I should wait a second longer.  That's what the coaches always applaud when it leads to a big play."  His purpose was much more clear last year, and thus, his confidence was higher.  He needs to get that confidence back.  

Nail 2:  Reps.  More than really any other single part of playing QB, the option requires reps.  Think of it like free throws.  Denard should be ending every practice with 100 option reads (that wouldn't take very long, really) and 100 pitches with each hand (which he could do running up and down the field with Devin).  Or 50/50.  Whatever.  The point is that it has to be like that for an option QB until he gets it.

That is why those old Nebraska option teams were so deadly.  High schools ran a lot more true option then, and really taught it.  So Nebraska could find someone like Tommie Frazier who had six years of option drills and experience under his belt.  That is harder to come by, now; even a spread-option QB like Devin really didn't learn how to read in high school, since his athleticism allowed him to gain 10 yards on a bad read.  

So, I think that will improve next year if Borges really embraces it and has Denard do option drills all summer.  It only takes two additional guys to do the read drill, and one other to do the pitch drill.  Actually, since catching the pitch and reacting properly to a long option ride are key skills for RBs, this practice would benefit them, too.


November 22nd, 2011 at 1:32 PM ^

I remember seeing that live. I was annoyed because it seemed obvious that he should have gone straight up the field for the first down. I think Denard got it in his head he had to get out of bounds to stop the clock but he should have just relied on the first down to do it instead.

The more frustrating play was the next one where he made the opposite decision and stayed in bounds when he should have sprinted for the sideline. On that play he didn't have a shot at the first down but could have gotten to the sideline.

My biggest concern with Denard over the last two years has been his inability to adjust what he is doing on the fly. It just seems like once he gets it in his head what he is going to do, he can't do anything different. Its like his feet have all the speed and his brain only gets one chance to make a decision per play. I do think that all the changes in the offense and the complexity compared to where he started from in High School has made his  job a lot harder.

I also think there is a good chance that he has a big leap next year. But it is frustrating seeing him not adjust to the play as it unfolds.


November 22nd, 2011 at 1:44 PM ^

I feel like Denard's running has gotten better in the last few games.  I'd like to think that Borges and Denard have kind of found each other's wavelength on the "Denard's feet setup Denard's arm" thing.  As opposed to the arm setting up the feet.  However I also realize that's pulling a lot out of only a few datapoints.

We do seem better than the games were Denard would drop back and put it in Park (which is fine when you are playing a tomato can and want to work on progression, not so great in a Trash Tornado) or where he'd a running lane open only to pull up and throw a wounded duck pass.  At least we've reached the point where when he runs, he runs.  Tucks it, hits the gas and goes instead of kind of hestating and looking for something to come open at the last second (which lets the DE run him down since Denard doesn't floor the pedal on those plays).  

Regarding his specific bounebacks to the inside, I wonder if it is coming from the fact that Molk is really good and the coaches are stressing "Run Behind the Center".  Also Neb has a really weak interior DL so the coaches spent the week conditioning the team to attack there.  Denard may have just gotten himself into thinking "Interior is weak, attack there".  In the past he's shown kind of a fixation for doing things.  You can tell on some plays he said "Fuck it, I'm running this" prior to the snap or "I'm throwing to Hemingway, oh he's double covered, so what?  I'm still throwing it.".  I have to wonder if while coachable Denard does sometime decide stuff in advance and get fixated on it.  All week he heard "Molk is an All American" and "Nebraska's interior is weak" so he just reflexively heads in that direction.  


November 22nd, 2011 at 1:57 PM ^

I was thinking the same thing during the last drive before the half.  I saw the hole open to the inside, and I screamed to cut it upfield.  At the time, I didn't realize that it was Hemingway attempting to blcok the corner.  Could the likelihood of an "ole" gone into Denard's thinking of trying to out run the corner to the edge?

Elno Lewis

November 22nd, 2011 at 2:03 PM ^

I just got the feeling that denard was so afraid of making mistakes that he was making them a lot.  i mean, alls well that ends well, but lets not go to that well too often.  Perhaps Borges will tell him this week just to run like the wind whenever.


no potato salad here.


November 22nd, 2011 at 2:04 PM ^

I had more than a few "Argh Denard" moments last Saturday.  I think that I'm in the minority here, but in the ground game (option, and running), I thought Denard was thoroughly awful.  His running, especially, looked frighteningly bad.  he reminded me of a high school freshman athlete who tries to break every play to the outside because he thinks that he can still outrun everybody.  Failing to make the right reads on option plays is understandable, but his regression running the ball is puzzling. 


November 22nd, 2011 at 2:11 PM ^

This has been a constant criticism I've had about Denard.  He isn't very good at making reads in the run game, whether it's where to run the ball (like on this highlighted play) or whether to hand off/pitch the ball on the option.

He does make some excellent plays, such as the mesh with Vincent Smith against MSU when Robinson yanked the ball out of Smith's belly and got the first down.

But more often he hands off the ball when he shouldn't, keeps the ball when he shouldn't, or keeps the ball when he should...and runs to the wrong place.  This is why it never looked like Rodriguez ran much read "option" because the mesh point was so quick that it looked as if Robinson was told to either hand it off or keep it in the playcall.  Robinson hasn't been a master of the zone read option for even one year in college, whether his coach was Rodriguez or Hoke. 

I remember watching Jeremiah Masoli at Oregon and how masterful he looked when running the zone read.  Obviously, Robinson is a better overall athlete than Masoli, but Masoli was much better at reading the run game, in my opinion.  If Robinson could master the zone read option, this offense would be unstoppable.


November 22nd, 2011 at 4:23 PM ^

But it may be that Denard is just not that "football smart." It seems to me that he makes the wrong read, whether in passing or or running, a lot. Not just a couple times a game, but a lot. That was the case last year too, I remember many times in the read option seeing him give when he should have kept, which may explain why RR went away from the read. It seems to me that whether in the passing or running games, he is much better with a defined job that doesn't  require quick decisions. This is not a knock on him, QB is the toughest job there is, and just because you are a great human being with wonderous athleticism it doesn't necessarily follow that you will be Peyton Manning with your football IQ.

Elno Lewis

November 22nd, 2011 at 2:11 PM ^

denard does not seem to be making a lot of progress in the 'happy feet' department. I have no idea of how a coach can cure this problem--but if he is serious about being an NFL QB he better develop some poise or its going to be hard going.  Hope the best for the kid though. 




November 22nd, 2011 at 2:15 PM ^

It seems to me his feet aren't happy enough.  He needs to learn when to just tuck and run it for an easy 10 yard gain.  Simply doing that could do wonders for his habit of throwing into double coverage since teams will have to leave another defender to spy on him.


November 22nd, 2011 at 2:19 PM ^

Maybe Denard's regression in running the zone read is because he doesn't have the guy who practically invented the thing coaching him anymore? He's certainly not a master of the zone read now, but, he's also not improving much in that department under the new regime. Not a criticism, really, just an observation.

That said: just win, baby. Beat Ohio.


November 22nd, 2011 at 2:29 PM ^

One of the downsides of having a "liberal arts" approach to playcalling offense is that the nuance about how to attack certain kinds of run schemes is probably easy to lose; at the very least you have less time to coach it. The opportunities gained from a defense not knowing which formation will come at them probably loses some opportunities for better executed plays from a formation where the players get a lot of reps, and where the coaches have thought about every wrinkle from the formation.

A poster above pointed out that the Nebraska teams in the 80's and 90's took great advantage to the deep understanding of run schemes from the option. I imagine taht there are many, many nuances to running a play out of the same formation that aren't immediatley obvious unless it's all you do.

Mr. Yost

November 22nd, 2011 at 2:46 PM ^

You're right, he's kinda horrible at it to be honest.


The perfect example comes on the first Fritz package play against Minny. He had a bad read, bad footwork and a bad pitch.


I believe Devin leads Denard on number of fake dive/pitch out to the RB plays too. Devin can also do it with his left and right hands. Denard ran an option left this year and pitched it underhanded with both hands like a rugby ball because he's not confident in pitching with his left hand.


Denard's GREAT at a lot of things, the option just isn't one of them. He also predetermines where he's going to go with the ball a lot.


With all that said, he's still the best 1-3 players on the field every time he steps inside the white lines. So whatever, we've got to take the bad reads and the poor pitch angles if we want the crazy 50+ yard runs.

Away Goal

November 22nd, 2011 at 3:08 PM ^

I noticed Denard's hesitation on the 2nd TD run at Illinois. He had a huge hole but then brokedown and shuffled, then went, instead of exploding through. Thinking too much?


November 22nd, 2011 at 3:28 PM ^

I think them finally relying on more zone read is what helped Denard have this "best game of the year so far" but it still needs work. It looks at times like he needs practice at the zone read. Sounds wired, right? To me it looks like quite a few of the option plays aren't him reading at all and deciding in advance that he's gonna just go for it. Same with some of his decisions to throw into coverage no matter how big the running lane is at times. Designed runs payed off in this game some as well, but it looked like they weren't nearly as potent as his gains when scrambling, they really seemed to fall flat at times in this game. Keep in mind I was drinking, but I remember seeing it almost as a rule: "designed qb run? Tfl. Read option? Modest gain or better." He did make some bad decisions after the snap, but quite a few more were made before it IMHO. If he can get more practice in actually reading the defenses and less time just rolling the dice and seeing what happens then he'll really start exploiting defenses.

Steve in PA

November 22nd, 2011 at 3:28 PM ^

He's a smallish guy and I'm wondering if the hits are starting to add up.  Not physically, but in terms of his psyche?

The tendency to want to run outside on everything is something that shows up in peewee ball with kids that don't like contact.  

Mr. Yost

November 22nd, 2011 at 9:55 PM ^

I've been afraid to say it, for fear of being negged to high hell...

We have our tought little Florida guys, Denard isn't one of them. Now you have to be tough to do what he does at the rate he does it...both mentally and physically. What I'm saying is the willingness to straight get in there and mix it up.

Denard used to lower the shoulder on people. He doesn't do that anymore. I'm not saying every time, I'm not saying don't go down or out of bounds (which he's done a great job at). I'm saying it's 3rd and 6 and you have a lane up the middle...even though you'll get hit for a gain of 7-8. But you try to bounce and dance outside to avoid the contact.

I do think it's in his head a little bit.

G Money

November 22nd, 2011 at 3:54 PM ^

...but aren't we averaging more points this year with completely new coaches?

That has to count for something... And, ya know, the wins and everything.


November 22nd, 2011 at 4:06 PM ^

Assuming Borges is as good as advertised, this is what I believe we'll see next year:


1.  Denard runs for 75-150 YPG

2.  Denard completes about 60% of his passes for 150-200 YPG, utilizing all his receivers, including TEs

3.  Toussaint gains 100-150 YPG.

4.  Gardner, Smith, and others make up an average of 100-150 yards.


Denard will spend the off-season learning how to better fit into the offense Borges wants to run.  (This still doesn't mean I-form).  He will read the running lanes better and this will open up the passing game, especially the deep routes.  TDs-to-INTs will be about 2:1 instad of 1:1.  Denard is a gifted athlete, but I just don't think his brain can handle all the change.  Borges will get him on track. 

Toussaint will be a beast.

Gardener will get the entire 4th quarter against tomato cans .  This will not only be to get him ready to lead the Wolverines in  2013, but because a more consistant offense and a rock-solid defense will make Hoke comfortable in leashing the Denard Toussaint monster. 


Talk amongst yourselves, I'm getting verklemt just thinking about it.





November 22nd, 2011 at 4:10 PM ^

It's almost like he's making decisions before the ball is snapped. Seeing this (type of thing) on some throws too. 

But uhh W00T for two 1000 yard rushers, right?


November 22nd, 2011 at 5:21 PM ^

. . . for teeing it up so that the usual folks can tell us that one of the best and most dynamic players we've had at Michigan isn't so great after all.  My lying eyes told me that Denard had one of his better games against Nebraska.  Not perfect, sure, but I'll take a less-than-perfect Denard any day.