ANN ARBOR - Two years ago Rich Rodriguez commenced spring practice unsure who would be the University of Michigan's starting quarterback to open the upcoming season. The picture was just as muddled a year ago.
Now? Well, it's much the same story, except the three individuals vying for the role - Tate Forcier, Denard Robinson, and Devin Gardner - represent a dramatic upgrade in talent and experience from what Rodriguez worked with in his first two seasons. Nick Sheridan, a factor the past two springs, has "retired" and will pursue a career in coaching, Rodriguez said.
Robinson was still pacing the halls of a Florida high school last year at this time, while Forcier, an early enrollee, arrived to Ann Arbor pursuing the job he'd ultimately win. If not improved, Forcier and Robinson should at least be more in tune with Rodriguez' fairly complex system. And then there's Gardner, the Detroit star who was all the rage long before he even enrolled at UM in January. Consider Gardner a dark horse to land the gig - at least for now.
Addressing media members yesterday before the start of his team's first practice since Ohio State week, Rodriguez indicated Forcier and Robinson will receive the bulk of meaningful repetitions, while Gardner attempts to process the information his competitors already know.
Gardner's accuracy was erratic, and his throwing motion unconventional, during the 15 minutes reporters were permitted to view practice. After a particularly errant throw, Forcier appeared to counsel the rookie.
"I'm sure his head's going to be spinning the first couple of weeks, but he's a very competitive guy, very intelligent," Rodriguez said. "We'll throw all three of those guys in the mix."
Players will work out in full pads beginning Saturday and will continue to practice until the annual spring game April 17.
Gardner's progression over the next month will be a key story for varied reasons. Rodriguez has suggested the speedy Robinson could be moved to receiver, and although Rodriguez hasn't said so, he'd probably be reluctant to make the switch if he weren't comfortable with Gardner in at least a back-up role.
Forcier's production as a freshman - although at times inconsistent - likely gives him an advantage over the others. But Gardner can claim an advantage. Whereas Gardner can minimize the gap fundamentally, Forcier (6-foot-1, 194 pounds) and Robinson (6-foot, 188) won't grow to be eye level with the 6-foot-4, 203-pound Gardner.
"Let's not put too much out there for a true freshman," Rodriguez said. "Those young guys, Tate and Denard, aren't going to back up. They're going to get better. Devin has a job to do to beat them out."
RACE OFF: Some players competed against each other in a 40-yard race last weekend, and defensive end Adam Patterson crossed the line first in the division restricted to those weighing 275 or more pounds. In the main event, which included some of the faster Wolverines, Martavious Odoms narrowly defeated runner-up Robinson, a sprinter on the UM track team.
"[Odoms] is not one to brag a whole lot, but he's got bragging rights until the next time," Rodriguez said.
INJURY REPORT: David Molk, Vincent Smith, and Brandon Herron will not participate in spring ball after undergoing offseason knee surgeries, and Junior Hemingway - also knee issues - is expected to miss at least the early part. Zac Johnson and Mike Martin (both recovering from shoulder injuries) will not participate in contact drills but will be permitted to do other activities.
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