ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- In theory, practicing against Michigan's quarterbacks this spring should be more fun for defenders like Wolverines linebacker Craig Roh.
Most teams treat their quarterbacks like porcelain dolls in spring ball, dressing them in odd-colored jerseys that might as well say, "Don't touch us ... or else." But at Michigan, quarterbacks Tate Forcier, Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner are wearing the same white practice jerseys as the other offensive players, mainly because the coaches want them to improve at protecting the football after contact.
Defenders like Roh no longer have to pull up every time they approach the quarterbacks. They can let it rip.
Cause for celebration, right? Not so much, especially when Robinson has the ball.
"I hate Denard on the football field," Roh said. "I love him outside of football, but on the football field, he's just such a nuisance. The quarterbacks here are too fast, and Denard, I just can't catch him. It's ridiculous."
Roh's loss could be Michigan's gain when the 2010 season rolls around. If he can't catch Robinson or the other quarterbacks, opposing defenders should have a rough time, too.
Robinson, who displayed his fleet feet at times last season as a true freshman, is taking advantage of his first spring practice and pushing Forcier for the starting job. Gardner, a heralded recruit who enrolled early, also is showing some good signs.
"It's great," wide receiver Roy Roundtree said. "They're working each other, making each other better. They're all doing well so far."
For the first time in Rich Rodriguez's trying tenure at Michigan, the team has the type of quarterback competition that the coaches want. This isn't 2008, when Rodriguez had to pick a starter from a pool of unsuitable candidates. Or last fall, when Forcier enrolled early and had a clear edge over Robinson.
"Right now, we're teaching all the quarterbacks all the offense," Rodriguez said. "We're not running certain plays for Tate, certain plays for Devin, certain plays for Denard. They're running all the offense."
Only Forcier operated the full playbook in 2009, and he had mixed results. He was arguably the nation's most exciting player in September, creating big plays and leading clutch drives as Michigan stormed out to a 4-0 start.
His inexperience showed during Big Ten play, and he finished the season with 14 turnovers (10 interceptions and four fumbles). Forcier was at his best as a freelancer, living on the edge, but he didn't seem as comfortable within the structure of the offense.
"You don't want to take his improvisation away," offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said, "but you also want him to be structurally sound in his progressions and know where everybody is."
Forcier finished with 2,050 passing yards with 13 touchdowns, but he threw nine touchdowns in the first five games and committed five turnovers in the season finale against the Ohio State Buckeyes.
"Maybe some of the things that happened early in the season happened a little easier for him," Rodriguez said. "It kind of felt right to him. At the end of the year, he played more like a true freshman at times. And he got banged up a little bit and his concentration wasn't as sharp.
"As coaches, it's our job to make sure he maintains that focus."
A year in the fire should help Forcier, just like a full offseason is helping Robinson.
Like Forcier, Robinson had his moments in 2009, scoring a 43-yard touchdown against Western Michigan on his first career touch at the college level. The unlaced Floridian showcased his sprinter's speed and ridiculous moves at times, but he wasn't a complete quarterback, connecting on just 14 of 31 pass attempts.
Robinson has worked on his mechanics this spring, and though he still could be used at other positions down the line, he's holding his own at quarterback.
"He's played well enough at quarterback for us to keep him at quarterback," Rodriguez said. "It's an expected progression."
Rodriguez is setting no timetable on naming a starter and wants more than one solid option there.
"As they go into their second year and they've been in your system," Rodriguez said, "you can expect a little bit more."