For the second consecutive year, it looks like Michigan will be forced to throw a freshman quarterback into an impossible situation. The difference, though, is that this year—good or bad—the results will be meaningful. The most frustrating aspect of last season’s debacle was its status as a lost season. Most programs featuring a system-change rely on “year one” to get the team acclimated to the new system. That year tends to be instrumental in the progress made over the next few years. “Year one” under Rodriguez was not only a disaster on the scoreboard but it did little to benefit the progress of the program moving forward. It didn’t matter how well or poorly Steve Threet played. Any amount of progress—and there wasn’t a whole lot—would be irrelevant beyond last season because the only way Michigan was going to dramatically improve was with a dual-threat QB—i.e. not Threet—running the show.
Threet came to Michigan to play in the old Michigan offense that featured tall, strong-armed signal callers. When Lloyd Carr stepped down and Rich Rodriguez came in to run the spread, Threet commendably stuck around to see how things went. What he ended up “seeing” was as inevitable as a Twinkie wrapper in Justin Boren’s dashboard. The spread does not work with slow, 6’5 quarterbacks. The whole point of the spread is the zone read. The QB reads the defensive end and based on that “read” either hands it off or keeps it. If your QB is too slow to do anything with it when he keeps it, then you’re not really running “the spread”; rather a sick and twisted version that features massive punt totals.
Threet’s performance was admirable last season but numbers tend not to lie. He was ineffective and that’s the kindest possible word I could’ve used. He was last among Big Ten starters in QB rating, completion percentage, passing yards, and yards per attempt. The only quarterback who was worse in the Big Ten was Nick Sheridan—his teammate. Rodriguez is smart enough to know that three more years of Threet would’ve spelled the end of his career at Michigan. Threet has always been lauded for his “smarts” and—thankfully—turned out to be smart enough to know that he wouldn’t have lasted another year as the starter at Michigan let alone three. His decision to transfer was the best decision for all parties involved.
Tate Forcier will more than likely be the starting QB in the fall. His competition—fellow true freshman Denard Robinson—is talented but won’t have the invaluable experience that Forcier will have picked up by enrolling early. Some suggest that losing Threet will have a huge negative impact on the 2009 season. Threet’s “experience” is often cited as the reason. I don’t buy it. There is a point at which “experience” means nothing. For instance, what if Michael Phelps was Michigan’s QB last season? The results would’ve been apocalyptically bad but—assuming he didn’t get injured and Michigan had no other options—he would be returning this season with “experience.” Obviously, Threet is a better quarterback than Michael Phelps. My point is that anyone can have “experience.” The people citing Threet’s “experience” as a detrimental loss need to figure out at what point “experience” becomes worthless. Don’t forget that Threet’s “experience” was that of the worst starting QB in the Big Ten playing in a system that couldn’t be more ill-fitted to his strengths if it required him to return punts.
Threet’s decision to leave wasn’t shocking or unexpected to me. Midway through 2008, I remarked in conversations that the best decision for him—not to mention Michigan—was for him to transfer at the end of the season to a system that fits his strengths. Surprisingly, that opinion was not universally held. Threet has received quite a bit of criticism for “quitting.” That’s about as assbackwards as the folks who are lamenting the loss of his “experience.” He was the victim of a coaching change. If anything, people should be feeling bad for him. I can only imagine the excitement that he must have felt when he first made the decision to transfer to Michigan. Unfortunately, scripts change and Threet found himself the proverbial “fish out of water.” The fact that he stayed amid the system-change and even considered staying for a second year of physical abuse should be extremely noteworthy in the minds of fans.
Before Threet’s transfer came to light, I had been working on a post where I was basically “going out on a limb” by predicting that Forcier would be the opening game starter in 2009. As recent as last weekend (before Threet’s transfer), that was not the popular opinion but I just could not fathom the idea that a quarterback as athletic, accurate, and fast as Forcier—true freshman or not—could not clearly distinguish himself from a slow-footed, accuracy-challenged sophomore. We’ll never know how that battle would’ve turned out but my opinion that Forcier would’ve been the starter anyway seriously softens the blow of Threet’s departure in my mind. Forcier is what RR was praying for when he arrived on campus last year. I would be willing to bet that Rodriguez feels it pivotal to get Forcier as many snaps as possible this season. Threet’s departure makes that a near certainty. It also gives Forcier all the snaps in both spring and fall practices.
I find it peculiar that Threet’s “experience” is being cited as a big loss yet nobody seems to be citing Nick Sheridan’s “experience” as a positive. Doesn’t Sheridan also have the “experience” that Threet has? Sheridan didn’t even come to Michigan to play football. He was an average high school quarterback. His performance in 2008 was historically bad. Yet, he not only held his own with Threet but won the quarterback competition coming out of fall practice. Threet eventually became the starter but was so indistinguishable that Sheridan stayed in the mix. As a result, Sheridan has “experience.” Is there anyone out there who feels that losing Sheridan’s “experience” would be detrimental to the team? Both Threet and Sheridan were atrocious in 2008. Neither have “experience” that Michigan needs right now and neither are better fits to the run the spread than Forcier. I realize that the idea of the 2009 season being in the hands of a true freshman quarterback is uncomfortable to most people. It’s uncomfortable to me. However, artificially inflating Threet’s prowess doesn’t change anything. Michigan doesn’t need bad experience at QB; it needs talent and play-making. If you want “experience”, then rest-assured that Nick Sheridan is still around.
There is no doubt that Forcier will make mistakes. He will be overwhelmed and he will frustrate fans. That is inevitable. However, Michigan’s offense was epically bad last season because its QBs were cement-footed and couldn’t hit an open receiver with consistency. Forcier is incredibly accurate and he’s fleet of foot. He doesn’t need to win games with his arm and he won’t be asked to. As a freshman in Rodriguez’s spread offense, Pat White only threw for 100+ yards three times. All Forcier needs to do is make the Michigan offense multi-dimensional. His physical skills should all but guarantee that. Michigan was never going to be a good team with Steve Threet at QB let alone beat Ohio State. His decision to leave only speeds up Michigan’s transformation to a well-functioning spread team. By 2010, Forcier will have an entire season of meaningful experience and the UM offense should be ready to roll. Anyone who expected marked improvement before 2010 under Threet was clearly unfamiliar with his mobility, accuracy, and 40-time.
With Threet out of the picture—and a true dual-threat QB in it—I would be surprised if the Michigan offense was not significantly better this season. Defenses were less than honest in 2008. They took advantage of Michigan’s obvious shortcomings. They keyed on running backs because they knew Threet could not beat them with his legs. Sam McGuffie’s inability to remember his name for parts of the season attest to that. They also knew that Threet did not have the accuracy or the pocket presence to attack downfield with his arm. If you’re running the spread and your QB can’t run or throw, you are going to lose to teams like Toledo. Conversely, if you’re running the spread and your QB can run and throw, then look no further than WVU ’05 for the possibilities. That’s the best case scenario. Worst case scenario should still be considerably better than what we saw in 2008. Forcier—mistakes and all—will immediately change everything; unless, of course, Denard Robinson does instead.