Denard Robinson's injury on Saturday, coupled with Russell Bellomy's poor performance in a backup role, prompts many questions about Michigan's quarterback recruiting. Could the coaches have anticipated this? Were mistakes made? If so, by whom?
Before we try to answer these questions, let's get a few quick observations out of the way.
1. Game performance and practice performance can differ. We don't know what the coaches saw out of Russell Bellomy in practice, but one must assume it was better than what we saw on the field. We do know that Bellomy looked sharp in the spring game, but that was in the friendly confines of Michigan Stadium, against the second-team defense.
2. Anytime a star of Denard Robinson's caliber is knocked out of a tough road game, you're probably going to lose. Obviously, a better performance by Bellomy would have made the game less painful to watch. But the fantasy where he actually wins it was always a long-shot.
3. Bellomy's first performance against a credible opponent with the game on the line, is probably not the best indication of his capabilities.
With that out of the way, let's get back to our original questions.
Quarterback Recruiting is Different
Quarterback recruiting has some unique challenges that the casual fan often does not appreciate.
1. Quarterback rankings are generally accurate. High-school quarterbacks are very highly scrutinized. Their position generates a lot of stats, and they're filmed on every down. It is therefore difficult to surprise anyone at quarterback. I know that Brian Griese was a walk-on, but he was a rare exception. Everyone knows who the great prospects are — including, of course, the prospects themselves.
2. Most teams play only one quarterback. This means that a star QB who's one class behind another star QB, has a very strong chance of spending most of his career on the bench. This situation differs from, say, the offensive line, where the presence of a 5-star on the roster is not necessarily going to dissuade other 5-stars from committing. You can make productive use of more than one of these. At QB, you can't.
3. Quarterbacks are usually not fungible. Leaving aside Devin Gardner, most QBs can only play QB. This means they have less potential for switching positions if they arrive at college and find a depth-chart traffic jam.
4. You don't play quarterback as a hobby. Even for exceptionally talented players, preparing to play quarterback is a full-time job. It is generally not possible to play another position, and then quickly switch to quarterback when the need arises.
What can we draw from these observations?
In economic terms, the market for college quarterbacks is transparent, and quarterbacks have the advantage: there are more schools seeking a great QB, than there are great QBs to go around. And it is rather unlikely that a school will find a great QB that no one else knew about. (Yes, I know: Denard Robinson. Keep reading.)
A highly-touted QB is therefore unlikely to choose a school where he risks losing the job to another highly-touted QB. The best recruits look for a school where there's a clear path to becoming a multi-year starter.
Of course, that's true at every position, to a certain extent. But there's no other position where the typical team plays only ONE guy, and if you're not THAT guy, you probably won't see much game action at all.
The Five-Star Thundercloud
When a five-star quarterback commits to your school, there's good news and bad news. The good news is: you got a five-star quarterback. The bad news is: the classes surrounding him are going to be barren.
Here's the list of Michigan's quarterback commitments in the Rivals era:
|2002||4||Matt Guttierez||Transferred to Idaho State|
|2003||4||Clayton Richard||Switched to baseball after one year|
|2005||3||Jason Forcier||Transferred to Stanford|
|2006||3||David Cone||Stayed but never saw meaningful game action|
|2007||5||Ryan Mallett||Transferred to Arkansas after his freshman season|
|2008||NONE||(Steven Threet had transferred from Georgia Tech the year before.)|
|2009||4||Tate Forcier||Flunked out of school after his sophomore year|
Observe the quarterback vacuum around each of the three five-star quarterbacks that Michigan has recruited in the Rivals era. Other top QBs don't want to compete with these guys.
(Some may recall that there was a similar vacuum around Drew Henson's recruitment. They weren't giving out stars then, but it's likely Henson would have had five, if he'd come along later.)
The Unusual Events of 2008–2010
To a lesser extent, it is also difficult to pick up multiple four-star quarterbacks in consecutive years. These guys aren't quite the nearly-sure things that five-stars are; still, they're in short enough supply that they tend to look for situations where they have a clear path to the top of the depth chart.
In 2008, Rich Rodriguez inherited Georgia Tech transfer Steven Threet (a former four-star) and Nick Sheridan, a walk-on. Neither guy was well-suited to Rodriguez's spread offense. After the 2008 season, Threet transferred for the second time in his short career, leaving a void at the quarterback position.
In the 2009 class, Rodriguez picked up two four-star quarterbacks, a rare feat. This was possible only because most major programs thought that Denard Robinson could not play QB at the college level.
You can't exactly call Robinson a sleeper, because he had offers at multiple top-tier programs, including Florida, Auburn, Georgia, Miami, Ohio State, and West Virginia. But among those schools, only Michigan offered him at quarterback.
Then, four-star Devin Gardner saw the tire fire that was Michigan's 2009 season, and decided to stick with the Wolverines in 2010, although he had other top-tier offers, including Oregon, Notre Dame, and Nebraska.
Thus, Michigan got three four-star QBs in two years, which you'll find is an uncommon occurrence in college football.
But Devin Gardner was taking the risk that all QB recruits take, when they sign the year after another touted recruit. To become a multi-year starter at QB, he needed Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson to both flame out. Only Forcier did.
Adding insult to injury, Rich Rodriguez foolishly burned Gardner's redshirt after Tate Forcier was temporarily demoted to third string, to punish him for a lackluster effort in off-season work-outs. Gardner played a total of three snaps in two games when Robinson was briefly sidelined, plus garbage time against Bowling Green.
At this writing, it is still unclear if Gardner can obtain a medical hardship waiver for an alleged back injury that he suffered midway through his freshman year. I am not sure how serious that back injury was. By the time of Michigan's bowl game, Forcier had already flunked out of school. Gardner made the trip to Jacksonville and would presumably have played if Robinson had been forced out of the game.
Should Gardner be unable to secure a fifth year, his lost freshman season is probably the worst burned redshirt currently on the team, and one of the dumbest ever.
The More Normal Events of 2011–2014
When Brady Hoke arrived in January 2011, he found only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster and none committed. No top-tier quarterbacks were available, and none would have considered Michigan in the wake of an ugly and disorganized transition from Rich Rodriguez to a little-known (at the time) coach from San Diego State.
So Hoke wasn't going to have a lot of options. The best he could get was Russell Bellomy, a three-star from Arlington, Texas, whose best previous offer was Purdue. The Michigan media promptly wrote fawning tributes to Bellomy, but let's not forget: quarterback rankings are generally accurate. There are reasons why his best previous offer was Purdue.
Brady Hoke started recruiting like a firestorm, and within a few months he'd snagged his first trophy: a commitment from Shane Morris, a junior quarterback who was on his way to getting five stars from all of the major recruiting services.
At this point, Michigan quarterback recruiting entered the five-star thundercloud. No one who's better than Russell Bellomy is going to want to risk the possibility that he'll spend three or four years on the bench, watching Shane Morris light up the Big Ten.
You can understand, therefore, why Michigan didn't take a quarterback in 2012. The only ones available would have been the David Cone types, someone practically guaranteed never to see meaningful game action. Certainly, any quarterback they might have taken in 2012 would not have helped avoid the loss to Nebraska. Nor would that hypothetical QB have been any help next year: he'd probably still be fourth string.
Obviously, Michigan will need to take someone in 2014 — Shane Morris can't be their only QB over a three-year period — but unless they find a legacy kid who happens to have four stars, it's probably going to be another three-star who feels that a probable date with a clipboard at Michigan is better than the starting job at Purdue.
Was Devin Gardner Mishandled?
With Devin Gardner, the coaches were damned if they did, and damned if they didn't.
Any idiot ought to have known that Gardner was likely to be a better backup quarterback than Bellomy. Gardner's not only a year older than Bellomy, but he was better than Bellomy in high school, and as we've noted, QB recruiting rankings are generally correct. Nothing we've seen from Bellomy, other than a spring game in which he faced Michigan's second-string defense, should have led you to believe otherwise.
Despite this fact, some people actually believed that Bellomy was better than Gardner; some even believed he was better than Denard. I imagine most have now been disabused of that notion.
I don't think the coaches ever believed Bellomy was better than Gardner. They're not stupid. But unless Denard were injured, Gardner was destined to waste another year on the bench. Pickings were slim at wide receiver, and Gardner was that rare quarterback who actually could play another position, precisely the one where Michigan needed him.
So the coaches took a calculated risk. They knew that if Gardner practiced at WR enough to actually be usable at that position, he would no longer be well enough prepared to step in at QB. They hoped that Bellomy would be good enough to spell Denard occasionally, and that they wouldn't need him to go out and win the game in Lincoln or Columbus.
It wasn't a crazy gamble, from the viewpoint of playing the odds, and trying to give Michigan the best chance to win every game. You can't be so defensive that you keep one of your best athletes off the field, waiting for an injury that might never happen. Unfortunately, they rolled snake-eyes.
So the short answer is: no, I don't think they mishandled Gardner, given what they knew at the time and the depth they inherited at wide receiver.
What Does It Mean for 2013 and Beyond
Devin Gardner will be a full-time quarterback again, starting the day after Michigan's bowl game. Depending on Denard's injury status, he might be switching back now.
The one sure thing, is that even if you believe Bellomy will eventually win the job, you wouldn't just hand it to him. You've got to have at least two ready, and Gardner will be the only other QB available between Denard's departure and Shane Morris's arrival.
Despite Morris's high talent ceiling, he lost half his senior season to mono, he played for a mediocre high school team, and he isn't graduating early. You're kidding yourself if you think he'll arrive in mid-summer, and be ready to start for Michigan (or even to be a credible backup) by September 1st.
My own view is that Gardner will win the job. As I've noted above, QB rankings are usually correct. He came in with a higher ceiling than Bellomy, he's the better athlete, he has more game experience, and he's a year older.
Gardner has provided useful depth at wide receiver, but he has not set the world on fire. This once again validates what Brian Cook has so often said: the presence of a position-switcher on the depth chart is usually a sign of weakness. The two kids Michigan actually recruited at receiver, Darboh and Chesson, should be ready to step up next year. And that's before we consider any production from the two incoming 2013 freshmen who are already committed, or any others who are still considering the Wolverines, such as Laquon Treadwell.
This scenario will allow Gardner to start at quarterback, Bellomy to be the backup once again, and Morris to redshirt. The worst conceivable scenario, which I imagine the coaches would prefer to avoid, is that Morris plays relatively meaningless backup action as a true freshman, and squanders what could otherwise be a far more productive fifth year down the road.
1. You should not be terribly bothered that Michigan didn't take a quarterback in the 2012 class. Anyone realistically available would not have seen the field anyway.
2. Russell Bellomy probably isn't a quarterback you can win a Big Ten title with. That shouldn't have surprised you.
3. You can't really fault the coaches for switching Devin Gardner to wide receiver, given what they had at the time. Nevertheless, he's probably your 2013 starter.
4. Michigan is better off with Shane Morris than without him. But it's hard to get two guys like that in close succession. Any other highly-ranked QB will want to put distance between himself and Morris. Your next stud quarterback won't come until 2015, or maybe even 2016. The next guy they get is going to be another Bellomy type; maybe even the next two.