ANN ARBOR, Mich. - In the moments before Michigan's spring game, two teenaged quarterbacks shared a handshake and a short chat on the Big House turf. Tate Forcier, in the maize and blue uniform, and Denard Robinson, wearing a tan and red jacket over jeans, met for the first time. So started what should be 2009's most fascinating college football relationship.
Coach Rich Rodriguez signed both players to help resuscitate a Wolverines squad that last year scored 31 touchdowns and committed 30 turnovers. Each player, according to the recruiting experts, possesses the skills and poise to lead this team in the fall. But as Robert Marve and Jacory Harris proved at Miami a year ago, there's likely room for only one of the prospects.
Score Round 1 for Forcier, in part by default. The kid from California enrolled early and spent the spring conditioning with his teammates and learning the offense. His performance Saturday was solid, though it came mostly against backups and walk-ons who would struggle for playing time across the street at Pioneer High.
Forcier completed the easy passes, the 6-yarders to wide-open receivers that Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan struggled to hit a year ago. Forcier also sprinkled in a pretty 50-yard pass to Roy Roundtree and lived up to his reputation for escaping the rush and scampering upfield.
"Sometimes, you can develop it, and sometimes it's innate," Rodriguez said of Forcier's elusiveness. "You just have the ability to adjust your body. You have a presence."
Forcier also seemed comfortable in front of the 50,000-ish fans and sounded excited about playing in front of double that come Sept. 5 against Western Michigan. His eyes grew wide as he discussed his maiden Big House experience, and he brought a hand to his mouth to stifle his giddiness.
"It was fun," Forcier said afterward. "A lot of fun. It was a really good atmosphere."
So the 6-1, 187-pounder heads into summer workouts as the consensus favorite to start the opener. Yet for all the good vibes, the spring game might rank as the most fun Forcier ever experiences at Michigan Stadium. And the kid in street clothes Saturday might be the reason why.
Robinson drew almost as much fanfare before the scrimmage as Forcier earned during and after it. The Michigan coaches agree, too — those inside the program say Rodriguez feels that Robinson will soon resemble former West Virginia dual-threat QB Pat White, and that he has the moxie to put together a similar career.
For that reason, Rodriguez has dispatched quarterbacks coach Rod Smith to Deerfield Beach, Fla., for chalk-talk sessions with Robinson as he wraps up his senior year. And Michigan fans grew just as enamored with a recent report that the kid had clocked a 10.28-second 100-meter dash during a track meet.
Rodriguez concedes that Robinson will face tough sledding as he tries to unseat Forcier this summer. But Robinson has the physical skills, and he has convinced his coach that he might be able to manage the mental side of things, as well.
"He knows football," Rodriguez said. "He's a sharp guy."
The same goes for Forcier. He comes from a family of quarterbacks (though none have been successful at the college level) and has spent much of his athletic life preparing for this opportunity. Though Rodriguez revels in the thought of Robinson's speed, he sees more intangibles in Forcier, especially his knack for staying poised and upright under pressure.
"That's why coach Rodriguez recruited me," Forcier said after Saturday's scrimmage. "A lot of times, when the play breaks down, that's your job. Make a play."
The Forcier-Robinson duel will be on hiatus for a few months — Forcier will keep working in Michigan while Robinson will go to his prom in Florida. They'll convene again around the Fourth of July and battle each other for the right to battle for Michigan.
History shows only one will flourish here. Rodriguez, Smith and offensive coordinator Calvin Magee eventually will go all-in on one quarterback. The other likely will leave town. The handshake then, if there is one, will feel much different.
But here in the spring, when optimism permeates college football, the quarterback clash at Michigan centers on opportunity. And that could make August and early September a lot of fun on this campus.
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