Denard Robinson poses big challenge for UMass

By Stephen Hewitt

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How does one stop Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson?

There’s no simple answer, one that opposing defenses have struggled to come up with over the last four seasons. Robinson is a prolific athlete, arguably the most athletic today in college football. After all, he didn’t grace the cover of Sports Illustrated’s college football preview issue this year for nothing.

Robinson’s legacy has been well-documented, although not close to finished. It all started when he was 10 years old and started playing football without his shoe laces tied, something he has kept up through today as he acquired the nickname ‘Shoelace.’

For most, playing football without their shoes tied, especially in the style that Robinson plays in, would be a burden.

But for Robinson, it’s helped him become the player he is today.

In his illustrious career as a Wolverine, Robinson has broken many school and NCAA records. As a sophomore, he became the first player in NCAA history to accumulate 2,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in the same season. That included a game against UMass in which he accounted for 345 total yards – 241 passing, 104 rushing – and three total touchdowns in a 42-37 Michigan victory.

On Saturday, the Minutemen will have their hands full again. They know it won’t be easy, but they’re coming prepared.

“You have to contain him,” said senior free safety Darren Thellen, who played against Robinson in the Minutemen’s trip to Michigan in 2010. “You can’t let him get outside. He’ll be the fastest player on the field on Saturday without a doubt, so we have to make sure he doesn’t hit the outside. If he gets outside, he can be really dangerous.”

Thellen is one of the few returning starters coming back to The Big House after the team’s visit in 2010, so there’s no doubt that with a primarily young roster the team is very inexperienced going up against one of the most dynamic players in college football.

So in order to prepare for him, UMass turned to one of its own.

Elijah Burrows, a true freshman quarterback from Springfield, has been posing as Robinson during practice all week. While not as fast or skilled as the Michigan version, Thellen said it’s helped the team prepare.

“I think that prepares us more for the game,” Thellen said. “But you never really get a real taste until you actually get to the game, so we’re anxious to see what it feels like during the game.”

UMass did get its first taste of a player like Robinson last week against Indiana. Hoosiers quarterback Tre Roberson, also a dual-threat quarterback, who has been compared as a poor man’s version of Robinson, ran all over the Minutemen to the tune of 114 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns and 76 passing yards before being lost to a season-ending broken leg in the second quarter.

“It was a good start,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said. “It got us very conscious about containing the quarterback, because our guys aren’t quarterbacks that just tuck it and run.
“Connecticut’s quarterback was the same style as ours, so our guys haven’t seen a lot of quarterbacks that are so mobile or such a dual-threat, so Roberson was the beginning, now this is the next step playing Denard.”

Outside of Robinson, the Wolverines also boast offensive threats such as running back Vincent Smith and wide receivers Jeremy Gallon and Devin Gardner, who the Minutemen will also need to key in on and contain in order to stand a chance on Saturday.

But whether or not it’s Robinson carrying the ball or passing to his talented teammates, Molnar said the key on defense comes down to a simple tactic.

“Great, great contain by the defense. And of course, great tackling, keeping their eyes up, great fundamental tackling,” Molnar said. “Those are the things that anybody who’s ever stopped (Robinson), it’s few and far between, that’s the only thing we can do.

“It’s all playing sound defense and guys using good eye control, making sure that they read their keys. If they do those things, you always have a chance.”
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.