Quarterbacks Denard Robinson (16), Tate Forcier (5) and Devin Gardner will compete for the starting job this fall. Now in his third year as coach, Rich Rodriguez has three talented dual-threat quarterbacks to run his spread option offense. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
The pinball game is threatening to tilt now, or so it would seem, and that's an unfamiliar, uneasy feeling for Michigan's football program.
But given this latest bit of bad news -- the crushing loss of cornerback Troy Woolfolk to a season-ending ankle injury Tuesday -- it's hard to resist the temptation to simply kick the machine and wait for the reboot.
Rich Rodriguez and his staff have no choice in the matter, though. And while the secondary is in a shambles now -- the first question asked of offensive coordinator Calvin Magee on Wednesday was whether he was ready to make any donations to the disaster relief fund -- the other question still looms nearly as large.
Who'll be the starter at quarterback when the season opens Sept. 4 against Connecticut?
"You wish I would tell you that," Magee said Wednesday, when asked who it'd be if the season started today.
"I really don't know," Magee continued, though not all that believably. "Really don't know. It's some good competition going on right now."
And for now, it's being billed as a three-way competition between last year's freshmen -- starter Tate Forcier and backup Denard Robinson -- and this year's newcomer, Devin Gardner.
Rodriguez had indicated the roles would be more clearly defined by the end of this week, but Magee wasn't offering up any timetable Wednesday, saying, "We're still some days from figuring that out."
Added Magee, "We'll know soon enough to get those guys the reps they need to be ready for the opener."
Soon enough can't come soon enough, if you ask me.
With so much else unsettled with this team -- including the running back situation behind the mystery signal-caller -- it'd be nice if there was a clear-cut leader to follow for an offense that's going to be asked to show the way for the Wolverines this fall.
So who's out in front?
"Right now, we're evaluating just the whole performance," Magee said, refusing to handicap it. "I'm not gonna get into the particulars of each one of 'em -- weaknesses or strengths, really. All three bring quite a bit to the table and that's what a good competition should be. It's gonna be our job (as coaches) to figure it out."
And our job, of course, to critique and question, which inevitably leads to guessing and second-guessing when football coaches go all clandestine on us.
So here's my guess: It'll be Robinson. And I say that based, in part, on this critical question: How can this staff justify handing the No 1 job, such that it is, to a guy who has been called out this summer for his lack of commitment and leadership?
That's the rap on Forcier, at least until Rodriguez & Co. deigns to let someone other than the Big Ten Network in to see what's really going on at practice. That secrecy is their right, no doubt. And though I think it's wrong, it's understandable.
But since the quarterbacks are off-limits -- they haven't spoken formally to local reporters since 2009 -- until Sunday's media day, we're left to wonder, as are the fans. The not-so-cryptic case of Forcier's de-winged helmet, coupled with some teammates' less-than-flattering comments about the sophomore's offseason work habits -- it was Woolfolk, ironically, who let that cat out of the bag -- only add to the confusion.
"Tate's been competing and playing and doing well," Magee said when asked if the cosmetic punishment had motivated Forcier. "A fire's lit under all of them kids right now. ... I don't know whether it lit a fire under him or not, as far as the wingless helmet."
Is Forcier still playing with clipped wings?
"I'm not going to answer that question -- it's not for me to tell you that," Magee said, smiling. "I have mine."
Wanted: Leader, motivator
But does he have his starter? Or will he even have just one this season, since the frontrunners -- Gardner's time will come in 2011, ideally -- both bring different skill sets to the table.
You can make an argument, as I do, that Robinson's speed and playmaking ability as a run-first threat at quarterback give him the edge in Rodriguez's offense. (Magee praised Robinson's improved "understanding (of) the complete scheme" Wednesday, among other things.) But you could also argue Forcier, if a necessary attitude adjustment has taken hold, brings more experience to a team that certainly could use it.
I asked Magee how he measured the leadership intangible in his quarterbacks. He talked about finding someone who can motivate his teammates "to play a little better" and "take anything that might be negative and pushing forward" and "showing that leadership by example." He talked about wanting his quarterback "not to hang (his) head" and to "keep us rallying, keep us going" and "just have guys around them feeling good about playing."
"It's not just in completion rates and all that stuff," Magee said. "Sometimes it's about who you can get to play better than they might play."
To me -- and others surely disagree -- that sounds like Robinson. But more than anything, it sounds like it's time for the coaches to make that call before it's game over.