Is Michigan’s Denard Robinson the best running QB in college history?

ISL Editor

Watching Denard Robinson run is a thing of beauty.

The Michigan quarterback set the NCAA record for yards rushing by a quarterback in a single season in 2010, and he’s nearing former West Virginia quarterback Pat White’s record for career yards rushing by a quarterback.

But how great is he?

A strong performance Saturday at Notre Dame could push him to the front of the greatest of all time debate among running quarterbacks. He’s got the numbers. Now, he’s got the stage.

First of all, some perspective.

Cliff Brunt, ISL Editor

I get goosebumps when I watch a great running quarterback. I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1980s, during the height of the wars between Nebraska coach Tom Osborne and his nemesis, Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer.

I played high school football in Nebraska and graduated from Omaha North High School in 1992. I played outside linebacker and nose guard. Almost every week, we played against the veer, I-formation option or the wishbone. It was that serious. Passing the ball at the high school level in Nebraska was almost illegal. It certainly was frowned upon.

You see, the University of Nebraska ran the I-formation option game with a fullback and a running back, called an I-back. The Huskers were perennial national title contenders, therefore, almost every coach in the state ran the option in hopes that their kids would someday play for the Big Red.

Nebraska’s Turner Gill was one of the first true dual-threat quarterbacks worthy of Heisman Trophy consideration in the early 1980s. Legendary Nebraska quarterbacks Tommie Frazier and Eric Crouch, though capable passers, were best known for their running abilities and their handle on the option game.

Oklahoma ran its vaunted wishbone offense right down everyone’s throats and won national titles with it. The two greatest wishbone quarterbacks ever, for my money, played for the Sooners: Jack Mildren in the 1970s and Jamelle Holieway in the 1980s. The base formation was a variant of the old T-formation with the fullback up closer to the line of scrimmage. It created endless opportunities for creativity and misdirection.

Holieway was a lightning bolt, a masterful magician and every cameraman’s worst nightmare. The old Sooners carried out their simple assignments with ruthless effectiveness, so much so that you often didn’t know who had the ball. As a kid, no single player I watched struck more fear into my heart than Jamelle Holieway. He led the Sooners to the 1985 national title AS A TRUE FRESHMAN.
Here are some highlights of Holieway at Oklahoma:

As you can see, I get passionate when it comes to running quarterbacks, and I don’t think they are all created equal. Even with the proliferation of dual-threat quarterbacks in the college game, few of them get my attention.

Denard Robinson does. If you’re old-school like me, he brings back childhood memories by destroying opponents with his legs from the quarterback position.

Three things stand out about Robinson:

Speed. He runs a 40-yard dash in the neighborhood of 4.3 seconds. That’s sick, especially for a quarterback. Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick might be the only quarterback ever with similar speed.

Quickness. Sometimes, it doesn’t even look like there is a hole, then all of a sudden, he’s 10 yards past the hole you didn’t even know existed. Maybe it never existed. Maybe it was just magic.

Durability. For all the running he does, Robinson doesn’t miss games. He gets dinged up, but he plays.

There are others who have shined as runners who have helped teams win.

Notre Dame’s Tony Rice used his legs to help the Irish win a national title in 1988.
Colorado’s Darian Hagan, nearly as deft an option operator as Holieway, finished fifth in the Heisman balloting in 1989 and helped Colorado win a national title in 1990.

Nebraska’s Frazier and won national championships as a run-first threat for the Cornhuskers in 1994 and 1995, and he was second to Ohio State’s Eddie George in the 1995 Heisman race. His run in the 1996 Orange Bowl national title game against Florida immortalized him in college football annals. The run is at the end of the tribute video below:

Vick was the nation’s most electrifying player as a freshman in 1999, when he finished third in the Heisman balloting and led Virginia Tech to the national championship game.

Nebraska’s Crouch was one of the few running quarterbacks to win the Heisman when he took home the hardware in 2001. He led the Huskers to the national title game, where they fell to Miami. Crouch’s best run was this effort against Missouri during his Heisman year.

Vince Young willed Texas to a national title with his arm and his legs in 2005 and was second to Reggie Bush in the Heisman race. Cam Newton had the size of a tight end and the speed of a wide receiver, and his legs helped him win the Heisman and Auburn claim a national title in 2010. Tim Tebow, a fullback playing quarterback, won the Heisman for Florida in 2007 and national titles in 2006 and 2008.

West Virginia’s White might not even be the best running quarterback in his school’s history: Major Harris nearly won a national title for the Mountaineers in the late 1980s as an accomplished runner.

Florida State’s Charlie Ward in 1993, Ohio State’s Troy Smith in 2006 and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III won Heismans with significant assistance from their running skills.

Air Force’s Beau Morgan and Dee Dowis were dynamic operators of the Falcons’ option game back in the day. Oklahoma’s Thomas Lott and J.C. Watts were wishbone masters, second to none in their eras. Others, such as Indiana’s Antwaan Randle El and Missouri’s Brad Smith, were electrifying runners whose teams weren’t quite as successful as the others.

So, where does Shoelace fit into this conversation?

Well, because there have been runners before him who have won Heismans and national titles, it would be great to see him win something major and see him perform well in his biggest remaining games to make a legitimate claim. The Alabama game was rough: he finished with 27 yards on 10 carries.

He gets the ultimate mulligan: Notre Dame, with its strong defense, presents just the kind of challenge on Saturday that greatest of all time claims can start being made with.

He’s clearly among the best to run from the quarterback position. As much as I love Holieway and Frazier, whom I think have been the best to this point, I think breaking White’s career record of 4,480 yards (he trails by 900 yards with 11 games remaining if he plays in the Big Ten title game), a trip to a BCS bowl and a Heisman would be enough for Robinson to make a legitimate claim as the best running quarterback in college football history.

Who do you think was the best? Let me know via Tweet at or in the comments section.


  1. Cliff…

    Great story on the outstanding running QBs in college football history–well researched. I enjoyed the trip down memory lane.

    I publish a monthly newsletter–free–on college football history and would like to invite you to become a subscriber; joining the 470+ we have so far–which included members of the media; those who work daily with the sport; noted authors, historians and researchers and fans of the game.

    Please contact me if you’re interested.

  2. Chance Harradge – Air Force early 2000s
    Matt Jones – Arkansas mid 2000s
    Robert Griffin – Baylor 2011

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