While fans get caught up in the last four weeks of the recruiting battle, hoping that the Lions can snatch four or five more top-notch prospects, the real battle is on campus with the constant debate of who should start at the most important position on the field for the 2005 Nittany Lions: Michael Robinson or Anthony Morelli?
Let's consider each player in the analysis:
The fifth-year senior will be in his last season at Penn State. He has done everything that has been asked of him and expected of him for the betterment of the team. The No. 1 East Coast prospect coming out of Richmond, Va., "Superman" possessed the speed, strength and powerful arm to attract college recruiters from all over the nation. He chose Penn State in large part due to the academics. To his credit, Robinson graduated in three and a half years, and is now enrolled in graduate courses.
Joe Paterno raves about him, calling him one of the best college football players in the country, and one of the best he has ever seen in his "55" years of coaching. While the platitudes are nice, it is certainly questionable whether they are warranted based on production.
In defense of Robinson, there probably has not been a player who has been more misused in his PSU career. Consider that M-Rob has not had the chance to practice and gain valuable drill repetitions at just one position during his tenure, rather, he has practiced at quarterback, wide receiver, tailback, slot receiver and even punt returner.
There was even serious discussion at one point to move him to defense, most notably strong safety, based on NFL player personnel feedback. That is where he will most likely play at the next level. Yet, stubbornly, Paterno and the staff continue to utilize his athletic skills on offense, where he has seen action at every skill position. He has become a contributor to everything, a master at nothing. That is not his fault, as you shall see.
Robinson played in 9 of the 11 games last year, contributing at quarterback, wide receiver and even running back. His strengths are his athleticism, his running ability and brute force. He struggled mightily at quarterback in 2004, garnering a woeful rating of 55.3. In fact, Robinson was 14 for 39 (35.9 percent) for 170 yards passing. Worse, he had five interceptions to only one touchdown, and that touchdown pass came on a fluke play, where he hit Zack Mills on a long fly pattern in the opening game against Akron.
Fans have been extremely critical of his development, or lack thereof. Last year, he had rough games in which he started for the oft-injured Mills, particularly against Ohio State - where a poorly thrown middle screen resulted in an interception for a touchdown. For a player who has been in the program now for four years, he still looks shaky and raw behind center. There has never been a question of his arm strength, but rather a question of his accuracy and his ability to read defenses. Fans and writers don't point to the passes that he did complete, but rather the ones he should have completed. They talk about missed chances, like the poor pass to wide-open tight end Isaac Smolko, who would have scored the winning touchdown against Iowa last season in what eventually would turn out to be a devastating homecoming loss, and a watershed moment in Paterno's legacy.
Whether it has been poor positional coaching, the inability to master the mechanics of the position or both, Robinson has struggled at the position for many reasons over the last four years. There was only one game, a home loss to Wisconsin two years ago where he threw for 379 yards and moved the team at will, where he finally looked comfortable. Yet he struggled mightily in the following weeks against Purdue and Minnesota, respectively.
So questions remain as to his ability to lead the passing attack next year. Would constant and consistent practice repetitions improve this situation, or, as they say, he is what he is, and improvement is unlikely?
One area he has grown is at the wide receiver position.
What does it say about the remainder of your receiving corps when a backup QB is the leading wide receiver in total yardage gained? As a wideout in 2004, Robinson gained 485 yards (54 yards per game) on 33 receptions for three touchdowns.
What should be noted, and what was to turn out to be a significant personnel decision, is that following the Northwestern game last season, the staff decided to keep Robinson at the wide receiver spot. Therefore, all his weekly practice repetitions were at that position. The staff was rewarded with probably his best game of the year, as he accumulated six catches for 99 yards and an athletic, 33-yard, over-the-shoulder touchdown catch in a win at Indiana.
He also, however, had significant drops due to a lack of concentration. A drop at Northwesternâ€™s 3-yard line, on a perfectly thrown ball by Mills, prevented Penn State from tying the game and potentially winning it. Again, did the lack of practice reps contribute to this situation?
When Morelli's father called Tom Bradley in December 2002 to reopen the prospect's recruitment after he had earlier committed to Pitt, Nittany Lion fans rejoiced. Spurned by Chad Henne, who opted for Michigan, PSU fans wanted a big-arm quarterback to lead the Lions for the next five years. Morelli, one of the more heralded QB prospects in the nation, opted for Penn State based on the academic environment and family atmosphere of the team.
Soon enough, we started receiving reports on Morelli's powerful arm, even witnessing it in his limited playing time in the Big 33 Classic. One alumnus, and former player, stated that he has the "strongest" arm in the history of the program (NFL-like, to be exact), and that former player is always conservative in praise.
Given that Chris Ganter was to be the No. 3 QB coming out of camp, most Lion fans expected Morelli to redshirt last year. Then the unthinkable happened, and he jogged on to the Beaver Stadium turf late in the opening game against Akron, thereby burning any redshirt possibility.
Now with Morelli's redshirt year all but gone, how did the staff utilize the young athlete? When both Mills and Robinson were knocked out of the Wisconsin game, the Nittany Nation was aghast when Ganter took over. Paterno defended his decision, pointing to the hostile environment and Wisconsin's NFL-like defensive line that was ripping up the Lions' soft underbelly.
Nevertheless, as the disaster of the year wore on, and loss after loss accumulated, fans began to openly wonder if there was in fact a plan. Do you begin planning for the future by starting the kid now and taking your lumps? Or do you go with Mills and Robinson and reward the tenure? With Mills out yet again, after being knocked silly by Iowa, Paterno - again - inserted Robinson at QB against Ohio State, only to deplete the already-anemic wide receiving corps.
Finally, with the year all but shot, and no bowl in view, Paterno inserted Morelli on the third series against Indiana. He looked exactly as any Penn State freshman QB would look - green and raw. He eventually tossed an interception that was returned for a touchdown, and struggled in the time he was in. He finished the year 5 for 13 with one interception and a poor 52.2 QB rating.
Yet Lion fans saw the powerful arm that everyone reported coming out of camp. On a second-down play against Akron, Morelli scrambled, stepped up in the pocket and fired a 23-yard rocket that pummeled walk-on wide receiver Vic Surma in the chest. The play netted 26 yards. Unfortunately, a holding call by Levi Brown negated the positive gain, but did not damper the impressions or athleticism of the play.
With that arm, Morelli has the ability to stretch defenses both horizontally and vertically if given a strong receiving corps.
This will be the biggest debate come August, a tough call for Penn State fans. But it may not be for Joe Paterno. Everyone should be used to his standard practice of rewarding those seniors who have been loyal to the program.
As such, I would expect Michael Robinson to line up under center on September 3 against South Florida.
While there are concerns about his overall lack of development to the intricacies of the position, the one advantage is that he will be focused on that position, and therefore take all his practice repetitions there during the week and preseason camp. He needs to work on his touch and certainly his accuracy, as his arm strength is not debatable.
Robinson figures to have a much stronger wide receiver corps than last year's, thanks to the addition of wideout Derrick Williams. Williams, who arrived on campus earlier this month, was considered in many circles to be the nationâ€™s top high school player last fall. But that does not necessarily mean he'll step in and star as a rookie at Penn State.
The more logical move on behalf of the staff would be to keep Robinson's athletic skills on the edge, and have him focus on playing wide receiver. He'll bring big-play ability and a veteran presence to an otherwise young group.
It would also allow the sophomore Morelli to start at quarterback and enjoy a season of growth.
And he may still get a fifth year of eligibility out of the deal. At the recent NCAA Coaches Convention in Louisville, the coaches agreed to ask the NCAA to consider a proposal to give players five seasons to complete five years of eligibility, which would effectively eliminate the practice of redshirting.
A recent report by the Associated Press said the NCAA Division I Management Council will not vote on the measure when it meets is April. But if the move is eventually approved, Morelli could conceivably gain an extra year of eligibility.
With the potential for that to happen, will Penn State fans be troubled if Robinson lines up at quarterback in 2005, knowing they still have the opportunity to see Morelli for a minimum of three years as a starter?
It will make for an interesting preseason debate.