Preview 2009: Quarterbacks

Submitted by Brian on September 1st, 2009 at 3:55 PM

Part two of the all-singing all-dancing season preview. Previously: The Story, 2009.

Incoming freshman Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier throws on the run while doing quarterback passing drills during Saturday, March 21st's practice at UM's practice field outside of Schembechler Hall.Rating: 2.

QB Yr.
Tate Forcier Fr.
Denard Robinson Fr.
Nick Sheridan Jr.*

Once upon a time, the Edmonton Oilers—of whom I am a fan mostly because of Mike Comrie and Chris Chelios, but that's another post—did something right. At the advent of the salary cap era in the NHL they traded an array of prospects and spare parts to Saint Louis for Chris Freakin' Pronger and signed him to a five-year deal. They surrounded Pronger with an array of steady old hands and overachievers and then set about deploying the NHL's best defenseman en route to the Oilers' traditional position when the trade deadline rolls around: on the fringes of the playoffs, unsure whether to buy or sell. Ah, the Oilers.

They bought, shipping a first-round pick and conditional third-rounder to the Minnesota Wild for elderly platoon goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who was not and is not Marty Brodeur.  A meaningless move and wild overpayment? Maybe for anyone else in the NHL.

You see, Rudy, the Oilers' goalies were Ty Conklin and Jussi Markkannen. They were not good. They were goalie DEATH, in fact:

When looking at save percentage relative to league, I use something I call relative save percentage. … I’ve got the numbers for every team since 1987-88; that’s 435 teams in all. Guess how many of those teams have put up a relative save percentage worse than the Oilers' 982.



Oilers blogger Mudcrutch—the statistically inclined fellow above—ended that pre-trade post above by muttering that it was "depressing to think how good this team could be with half-decent goaltending." When Roloson came in, he whipped out the Godfather references and declared the new guy would make the Oilers 12 goals better over the remainder of the regular season, a "ridiculous number."

He was right. The Oilers made the playoffs, charged through the Western Conference, and made the Stanley Cup finals. There they fell in seven games after Roloson was injured in game one, leaving Ty Conklin to commit one of the all-time worst gaffes in Stanley Cup history and be exiled from Canada forever. Conklin is currently a hobo living in Venezuela and definitely didn't latch onto the best organization in professional sports; Pronger would demand a trade ten seconds after the season ended. Edmonton's team has an average age of 12 and hasn't sniffed the second round since. But for one shining moment, a league-average goalie made all the difference.

I think you see where I'm going with this.


Nobody held out much hope last year when Rodriguez's top two options post-Mallett were a walk-on who was honorable mention All-Conference in high school and a guy who got beat out by a walk-on who was honorable mention All-Conference in high school. But even what little hopes were proffered (Sheridan "could be a non-liability who successfully keeps the heat off the other skill position players," said this blog) turned out to be wildly optimistic.

Nick Sheridan and Steven Threet set the bar for quarterback futility so high (low?) they shattered this blog's horrible-quarterbacking touchstone from years past: 1993. Brian Griese and Scott Dreisbach played Sheridan and Threet, respectively, en route to this:

Name Att Comp Int Comp % Yds YPC YPA TD
Brian Griese 238 127 10 53.4 1577 12.4 6.6 13
S Dreisbach 106 56 3 52.8 850 15.2 8.0 3

Those numbers are ugly. They are also vastly better than what Michigan endured last year. I'll spare you the full horror show and just highlight the most important number, yards per attempt. Griese and Dreisbach averaged 7.1 YPA between them. Threet and Sheridan? 5.1. Even Tacopants—Jason Avant's eleven-foot-tall imaginary friend—was discouraged:

Dude, Tacopants is going to catch 400 balls this year.

No, because even he’s watching these sail over his head, and he can be whatever height he wants to be because he is made of dreams and snails and puppy dog tails.

So, yes, Michigan is staring down the barrel of a depth chart that features true freshmen at spots one and two, and people are pretty sanguine about that. Let's just embed this artifact one more time to reinforce why:

Tate Forcier, spring game, 11/14 for 130-ish yards, fifty more on the ground, five total touchdowns, complete failure to heave looping balls that nestle gently between the numbers of opposing defensive backs. Forcier was the easy winner of "Most Encouraging Development" after the spring game. You've heard, seen, and possibly cleaned up after it all before.

Normally this would be the section of the preview that discussed Forcier's performance to date, or in the event of a new starter, summarized the behind-the-scenes fawning and tried to take it down to a reasonable level. But every iota of information we have on Forcier's been hashed and rehashed in this space already. The executive summary:

Tate Forcier is the one who didn't get away, the one who was planning on committing even when Kevin Newsome and Shavodrick Beaver hadn't twirled their mustaches in dastardly fashion and tied Michigan football's hopes to the train tracks before effecting their getaways. His brother is my favorite Michigan player of all time who never played. He is a relentlessly trained quarterback prodigy ready to step in on day one—which was a month ago—and challenge Steven Threet for the starting job. God help us if he flames out.

Here's the world's most succinct scouting report($), via a story title from the Nebraska Rivals site: Forcier Equals Accuracy.

Two thousand other words await you at the link if you're interested in a recap and haven't already committed them to memory. (Which bad form, MGoReader, bad form. Downvote yourself in your heart.)

Forcier has been shaped to be a quarterback since he was a wee tyke. The younger sibling of two Division I recruits (who, it must be said, never actually played), Forcier is the smallest, most consistently drilled, and best mechanically. He's had college-level coaching for years on end now and should be considerably more prepared to play than your average freshman quarterback.

Since we have a general idea of what to expect in Forcier's specific case relative to other freshmen, let's examine what other freshmen thrust into the spotlight tend to do. Doctor Saturday's spent a lot of time this offseason pondering the direction of the Michigan program, and in one post he surveyed the brief, undistinguished recent history of true freshman quarterbacks. Stolen table coming atcha:


If you scanned that like I did your first reaction was "holy hell, Threet & Sheridan's YPA was well worse than everyone on this list except Jimmah." And yes, it's true. Taken as an aggregate, this random sampling of who-dats and future stars comes out to 6.7, a little worse than Dreisbach-Griese and vastly better than Threetsheridammit.

The upshot: freshman quarterbacks suck, but on average they suck far less than Michigan's two-headed monster of yesteryear. An average-for-a-freshman performance from Forcier will be a huge step forward for the offense.

Note also the tendency of spread—or at least mobile—quarterbacks to cluster at opposite ends of the spectrum. The #1, 2, 3, and 5 quarterbacks were all spread-ish, mobile-ish types. So were the worst, fourth-worst, and eh, maybe fifth-worst. In conjunction with Rodriguez's success with relatively inexperienced quarterbacks (Rasheed Marshall and Pat White at West Virginia) this looks like something of a theory: spread offenses lend themselves to early success as long as you have one-and-a-half talents. Williams, Ball, and Freeman did not. Williams and Ball couldn't throw worth a damn and Freeman was a Spread In Name Only quarterback shoehorned into a spread offense despite his inability to run.

But maybe as long as you're a polished, super-accurate short passer (Leak) or thrilling athlete (Pryor, Griffin), you can get away with your half-skill well enough. (Not having taken in much of a horrible Pac-10 team, I'm not exactly sure where Tuitama fits.) If spread quarterbacks are either surprisingly good for freshmen or horrible, the horrible ones tend to be undercoached, sushi-raw fast guys with the accuracy of a tommy gunner on amphetamines.

This is the precise opposite of Tate Forcier, long may he remain unbroken and functional.

Backups and whatnot


Everyone's hoping that incoming freshman Denard Robinson earns the out-and-out backup spot by the Big Ten schedule because the alternatives are Sheridan, about whom scroll up to the Conklin/Markkannen analogy, and David "Coner" Cone.  Since Robinson just arrived a few weeks ago and didn't get the spring exposure Forcier did I've got nothing more to offer on him other than what got dumped out in his recruiting profile and what's been said about his crazy ninja speed by coaches and teammates.. The executive-executive summary: Pat White. Except maybe… faster?

Offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said Robinson is bigger than Pat White was when he came to West Virginia as a freshman, and quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said Robinson's speed compares favorably to White's.

“I don’t want to blow him up, but he’s fast," Smith said. "He’s fast. It’s fun to watch because when he breaks through - and I love Pat to death, but I’m not so sure this kid - he’s fast. They’re close."

His high school coach gets misty:

"Oh my god, Michigan is going to get an explosive, explosive quarterback," Taylor said. "He's a leader, he pushes his will to win on others. I've never seen a kid so competitive."

Stevie Brown on Michigan's jackrabbit:

“I remember one time Denard (Robinson) broke. When Denard opens up and runs there is nobody that is catching him. He hit a little seam, we lost contain on him and I think he probably hit 80 yards and it felt like five seconds.”

Question: Nobody in the Big Ten is catching him?

"I can't say that. I don’t really know how fast everybody is, but I doubt it.”

He is made of dilithium, and reports from practice are surprised at how accurate his arm is on short stuff.

Robinson will probably work his way into the offense in a version of the Feagin package from last year—ESPN will dub it the "Wild Dawg"—except he's actually capable of throwing so defenses will have to respect that.

I'd been hoping Forcier puts a stranglehold on the job and Robinson would end up redshirting in 2010 before emerging as a hyper-fast skill position player or cornerback, but given all the practice buzz you have to keep him around at QB until such time as he doesn't provide an element of explosiveness far beyond the alternatives. IE: Devin Gardner starts, which is still very much up in the air. This year he's the only thing standing between Michigan and…

Nick Sheridan. I nicknamed him DEATH just in time for the Minnesota game, where he proceeded to play sort of like a good, if physically deficient, Division I quarterback. It couldn't last, though, and Sheridan finished the year by going 8 of 29 against Northwestern and 8 of 24 against Ohio State. Across both games he totaled 148 yards. No offense to his work ethic or general standing as a person, but if he sees the field it's time to cower.

I know, I know, I know. He will probably play against Western and he's listed amongst the great wide ORs on the quarterback depth chart. But I refer you to the stats above and this blog's pre-jihad obsession with debunking the idea he will start. I won't belabor it further.

And this is probably the last time I'll get to use a sentence that's sat untouched in this preview since he matriculated, so prepare to shed a single tear: if David Cone sees the field something has gone very wrong.



September 1st, 2009 at 4:16 PM ^

I really think that there is a VERY VERY good chance that Sheridan starts for the first drive on Saturday.

Yes I don't want that but even his DEATH experience is more experience in a college game than the 2 true freshmen.


September 1st, 2009 at 4:40 PM ^

For what it's worth (I'm sure no one cares), I'm also betting on Sheridan to start, just so that Forcier doesn't have the added pressure of starting his first game. (I don't know if Rod subscribes to the theory that starting your first game action can scare freshmen, but I know many who do.) That said, I doubt it lasts long.

I would love to see Coner get some playing time, preferably mopping up during a 21-point victory. The kid has stuck around for so long, probably been a good kid, made all the practices, changed his damn jersey number at least twice ... I'd just like him to leave Michigan with a few pictures of him in game action to show his kids.

In mop-up duty.


September 1st, 2009 at 5:11 PM ^

I agree that RR may be gun shy about trotting out Forcier for the first series. As good as Western could be, I still think the coaching staff will treat this game as a dress rehearsal of sorts for ND, and that includes easing in Tate instead of having him start the first game of the season. Sheridan will play for a series or two and, if he plays badly, will be replaced quickly. If Sheridan does play well, then Tate can come in toward the middle of the second half and get some nice mop-up play.

Captain Obvious

September 1st, 2009 at 4:46 PM ^

All 3 lined up in the backfield - Sheridan flanked by Tate and Denard. Snap to Sheridan, handoff to Denard and OH MY GOD flea flicker to Tate. He bombs it 80 yards to an uncovered Mathews for the TD.



September 1st, 2009 at 4:51 PM ^

Minor, unimportant correction: the year of the Driesbach/Griese horror was 1995, not 93. I believed that Griese was the worst qb in Michigan history (in 95). That changed last year.

In 96 Griese didn't play much until the OSU game, which we won. Then in 97.....


September 1st, 2009 at 5:26 PM ^

The minute I hear something hit the newswire, I come flying here for Brian's all-knowing perspective. Damn it, I really have grown to like Rich Rod, but I'm not sure what else is coming in these last couple of days before college football Christmas Day to make me confused and scared and sad...

Also, not to get all Mitch Albom on the blog, but RRod kind of is the epitome of the state of Michigan as it is today. Known in his past for being an innovator, lots of potential, a little coarse but intensely proud of being hard working, but also derided nationally for having become a tragic epic loser and possibly quite bad with finances....

Not a Blue Fan

September 1st, 2009 at 5:27 PM ^

WMU is pretty much the ideal team to get a freshmen QB some snaps. They're not HORRIBLE, but they're not threatening enough to result in a brain-shattering interception spree or life-function terminating sequence of sacks. Even if Forcier/Robinson don't have stellar games, it's unlikely that they'll leave week 1 in some form of coma and/or crushing depression.


September 1st, 2009 at 10:07 PM ^

Chris Satan's Spawn Pronger was the best defenseman in the 1999-2000, when he won the Norris and Hart. He, however, was not the best defenseman in the league at any point after that.

Nicklas Lidstrom.


September 2nd, 2009 at 12:07 AM ^

Brian, I remember you posting as funkymoses on Hockeysfuture's Oilers board back in the day.

EDIT - this sounded dorkier than i thought it would. just thought i'd share it for some reason.


September 2nd, 2009 at 11:06 AM ^

The Chelios reference is apropos of nothing, given he only played for the Canadiens, Slackhawks, and Wings during his Methuselah-type career. Do explain, Brian, do explain. We hang upon your every word.

Btw, did you know that Chely played as many seasons for the Wings (9) as he did for the Suckhawks (9)? Weird, wild stuff. Given that he was a deadline deal, he has actually played for parts of 10 seasons with the Wings, all the time dreaming of chili.