Denard Robinson is one of the most prolific running quarterbacks in the history of college football. A dazzling, electric runner whose passing skills leave something to be desired, it's likely he will have to make a position switch in the NFL. The question is what role best suits his talents?
The recent history of quarterbacks changing positions is somewhat shaky. Antwan Randle El was able to carve out a role as a receiver and returner who ran the occasional reverse (and threw reverse pass). Josh Cribbs has become one of the best returners in NFL history, and has made his fair share of plays on direct snaps and Jet Sweeps. Armanti Edwards, recently of Appalachian State, hasn't done much of anything in the NFL. The Miami Dolphins tried to develop run game packages solely around Pat White's talents, and the results were below average. A mixed bag.
When I watch Robinson run (and the way Michigan uses him), I can't help but think his best role would be to start out as a returner and as a situational running back. He's listed at just 6'0/197 pounds, but has a thickly built lower body. The Michigan offense has taught him to make the same types of reads NFL runningbacks are taught. He's totaled over 200 carries the last two seasons, and he was the entire foundation of their run game in 2010 - totaling 256 attempts for 1702 yards (6.6 YPC) and 14 touchdowns. He has a tendency to get upright, but he's a tough and patient inside runner who reads and sets his blocks up well, hits cutback lanes with authority, and has the speed to do damage in space.
Patience and Toughness Inside
Michigan lines up in 21 (two TE, one RB) personnel from a shotgun set on a 3rd and 1 in the first quarter and call a Speed Option play to the boundary.
For the offensive line, the play works exactly like the Outside Zone play NFL teams run to death. Covered linemen try to reach the defender across from them and the uncovered linemen help combo-to-linebacker to the playside.
With the combination of Outside Zone principles up front and the decision to option the strong safety, the Michigan coaching staff is essentially letting Robinson read this play like an NFL running back. If everything gets blocked cleanly and the playside linebacker gets reached at the line, Robinson can attack the edge unimpeded and force the strong safety to declare. However, if the backer holds the edge, Robinson's read goes to the interior defensive line and the pursuit of the linebackers. From there, plant and find the cutback lane that the Outside Zone is so famous for.
Highlighted in green, the playside linebacker moves Michigan's tight end into the backfield. The strong safety has filled hard off the edge, and the two inside linebackers are scraping hard playside. Instead of allowing the defense to string the play out, Robinson takes advantage of Alabama's pursuit, planting his outside foot, re-directing, and hitting the crease swiftly.
Denard gets skinny through the trash in the cutback lane. He leans and squares his shoulders through the tackle, which allows him to pick up an additional three yards.
Michigan lines up in 21 personnel from the six yard line, calling Power O - the other staple off-tackle run in the NFL. The key to running Power O is for playside guard and tackle need a good, solid double team, minimizing the distance for the offside pulling guard (hence the O in Power O) to lead through the hole.
Alabama is running a Bear or Double Eagle defensive front. The Bear front covers all three interior offensive linemen, preventing double teams on the inside and discouraging the O from pulling their interior guys. As you can see, the 3-tech defensive tackle highlighted in red poses a significant threat to blow this up in the backfield unless the right tackle can get a clean cut at the line of scrimmage.
The backside 3-tech threatens to blow the whole play up in the backfield, as the right tackle is late and slow in cutting him down. The designed point of entry is also compressed. This is the point where many young running backs will panic and try to bounce the run outside, beating the defense to the perimeter with their athleticism - a tactic that works against sloppy college defenses, but doesn't fly in the NFL. Robinson, however, is a tough and patient inside runner. He puts his hand on his pulling guard, keeping his eyes on the second level while letting the play develop.
Shoelace makes a few hard steps outside to set up the second level pursuit, then cuts back aggressively downhill - finding the crease perfectly. He picks his way through traffic until the three yard line.
Four Alabama defenders make contact, but Robinson keeps his legs churning, grinding his way to the endzone on the play, once again displaying toughness and patience as an inside runner.
Early Contributions/Speed in Space
While I'm unsure about Robinson making the conversion to receiver, I think one way a team can try to get him to contribute early is in the return game, must like Cleveland Browns Pro Bowler Josh Cribbs - another former quarterback. When trying to project a potential returner who has never actually returned a kick, I look for the runner's ability to scan the field while picking through trash and the ability to make sudden cuts to throw defenders' angles off.
This play starts off looking like an Inside Zone to the left. The nose tackle beats the center however, and two defensive linemen swallow up the point of attack. Denard cuts back hard to the right, dips outside, and starts reading his receivers' blocks.
Denard makes a hard cut outside, juking the corner and breaking the defense's containment. This doesn't result in a huge gain, and it's difficult to appreciate the quickness and decisiveness of these moves with just pictures, but Robinson did an excellent job of avoiding a potentially broken play, setting the D up inside, cutting back out towards the perimeter, and breaking containment all in just a few moves.
None of these plays are long, dazzling runs, but I wanted to show that Denard was capable of doing some tough, gritty work against a physically dominating defense. Make no mistake though, he's absolutely electric with the ball in his hands. Should he play some snaps at receiver or get involved in some gadget plays? Sure, but I think it'd be criminal to ask this kid to consistently line up away from the ball, run around, and then try and throw it to him. Give him the ball, don't make him go get it.
The main question as to whether Denard can consistently get snaps at runningback in the NFL is going to come down to one main thing: whether or not he can pass protect - a completely unprojectable factor at this point. If blocking is something he picks up on, I think he'll eventually develop into a real weapon as a committee running back/returner/space player. If he can't do that, however, it's likely he'll be relegated strictly to returns, Bubble Screens, and the occasional Jet Sweep.