U-M sophomore QB Tate Forcier rolls out looking for a receiver during the spring game at the Big House on Saturday. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Ann Arbor -- Rich Rodriguez keeps pushing, keeps looking, keeps hoping. Ask him about his quarterbacks and he sounds impatient, even a bit uncertain, and I understand why.
Rodriguez is tied to his quarterbacks because that's who runs his offense, and that's what built his reputation. And if he's showing some impatience, well, the harsh truth is, he knows he doesn't have a lot of time to make this work.
After Michigan wrapped up spring practice Saturday in front of about 35,000 fans at Michigan Stadium, Rodriguez called the play of his quarterbacks "uneven." While sophomores Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, as well as freshman Devin Gardner, showed flashes, they also spent considerable time running around, trying to make something happen.
It was a controlled scrimmage, with the defense not allowed to hit the quarterbacks, so it was hard to judge. But it's very easy to judge the danger lurking. With an 8-16 record in two seasons, and NCAA violations alleged, Rodriguez is entering the most important stretch of his career.
Everyone will be watching in August to see if Forcier can hold off a hard-charging Robinson. Everyone will be watching everything.
"This season is huge, huge for the program," new athletic director Dave Brandon said. "It's really important we continue to move forward, and everybody knows it. Nobody knows it more than the coaches. If things are improving, I believe I have the ability to see that. And if I see it, I support it."
That's not a threat from the new boss, not at all. It's a statement of fact.
Pressure to win
Rodriguez's job likely is on the line, although who knows if there's a magical victory total for him to survive. To be considered improving, the Wolverines certainly have to be better than the 5-7 of a year ago. They have to show a smoother offense and a vastly upgraded defense.
They should be better, but how much better? A lot hinges on the quarterbacks, and this is where it gets tricky for Rodriguez. He doesn't want to heap more pressure on them, but in his spread offense, it's unavoidable.
He clearly is challenging Forcier, the incumbent who's not guaranteed to remain the starter. Robinson's speed always was intriguing. Now his arm has improved, and his 97-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree was the highlight of the spring game.
It's great to have competition, but Rodriguez probably would feel more comfortable if one seized command. Trying to keep an uneasy issue from stirring, he didn't make the quarterbacks available for interviews.
"I'm pleased they've gotten better, but nobody has kind of taken it and grabbed it," Rodriguez said. "Denard's certainly made some big leaps, and Tate's gotten better. I'm not just giving you coach-speak. It's truly wide open. I hope there's more than one that we can win with, and I think there will be."
Ultimately, I expect Rodriguez to lean on the guy with the most experience, and that's Forcier. But Robinson is uniquely talented and took the first snaps Saturday. Forcier has to make fewer mistakes, because this regime can't afford many more mistakes.
Players know what's happening, with the record and the NCAA, and they talk of a tighter camaraderie.
"Coach is stressing team chemistry, and I think we definitely have that more than I've seen the last few years," senior offensive guard Stephen Schilling said. "We all know the pressure to win. You come to Michigan, you're supposed to win, that's kind of the tradition here. It's definitely time."
Scrambling for time
A bonding from strife? Maybe.
But so much is still unknown. Michigan isn't settled on a starting tailback, although redshirt freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint and true freshman Stephen Hopkins are pushing hard. There's youth at a lot of positions, including quarterback.
And there's still uncertainty about the NCAA charges, with Michigan to present its case to the Committee on Infractions in August. More recently, West Virginia revealed the NCAA was investigating Rodriguez's tenure there.
Brandon may be new, and he has voiced support for Rodriguez, but I'm sure his patience has limits too. I asked him if the West Virginia news affected his view at all.
"I don't even know what it is -- that investigation is taking place at another university with a set of facts I'm not privy to," Brandon said. "The NCAA's gonna deal with West Virginia, and personally, we'll be interested when the information is made available. But I made it real clear earlier, nothing has led me to believe there was cause for changing the status of our coach. He's our coach."
Rodriguez needs to show progress, real progress. Much of that depends on his quarterbacks, who do one thing very well -- they scramble and buy time. In his own way, Rodriguez is trying to do the same.