"In high school, you get those slow shotgun snaps," the Michigan freshman quarterback said last week. "These come back like rockets."
After three weeks of spring practice, Forcier has mastered the center-quarterback exchange. Now, he's working on the rest of the offense. Forcier, an early enrollee from San Diego, knows he has been handed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Thanks to Steven Threet's transfer and junior Nick Sheridan's tough-luck injury, Forcier has taken most of the first-team snaps this spring. That should give him a head start in the competition to take over the reins of an offense -- and a team -- that has nowhere to go but up.
Forcier, who never lacked confidence as the Scripps Ranch High quarterback or as the co-author of a fascinating Web page that includes scans of his scholarship offer letters, tossed in a dash of humility in an interview last week. He understands that unless he develops on the field, in the meeting room and in the weight room, he won't be taking those first-team snaps come fall. Sheridan, who suffered a non-displaced fracture in his lower right leg last month, will be ready for the start of preseason practice. So will fellow freshman Denard Robinson, a speedster from Deerfield Beach, Fla., who will arrive in Ann Arbor this summer. One of the three will pilot coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense, and Forcier doesn't want to waste the head start he's getting on the competition this spring.
"Coach Rodriguez already made it clear that nobody is going to win the job in the spring. It's going to come in the fall," said Forcier, whose brother, Jason, played quarterback at Michigan before transferring to Stanford prior to the 2007 season.
The Wolverines are coming off one of the worst seasons in their storied history. Michigan finished with a 3-9 record in 2008 and were last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (20.2 points a game), total offense (290.8 yards a game) and passing offense (143.2 yards a game). Rodriguez, renowned for his offenses at Clemson, Tulane and West Virginia, had little with which to work. Rocket-armed quarterback Ryan Mallett transferred to Arkansas before Rodriguez had a chance to prove he could design an offense around Mallett. Meanwhile, right tackle Steven Schiller was the only member of an eight-man-deep offensive line with more than two career starts. To make matters worse, Terrelle Pryor, the quarterback recruit who seemed a perfect fit for Rodriguez's offense, signed with hated rival Ohio State.
In high school, Forcier ran an offense similar to the one Rodriguez ran at West Virginia and hopes to run at Michigan. While Forcier doesn't have former Mountaineer Pat White's speed, he's fast enough to be a threat, and he has a stronger arm.
Also, Forcier is playing behind a much better line than Threet and Sheridan had last year. Michigan's linemen are more experienced, and the youngsters are pushing the starters in a unit that now goes 13 deep. "Last year they were real young, tentative at times," linebacker Obi Ezeh said. "That's kind of the deal with young players -- sometimes they think too much. With the offensive line, there's a lot to take down. You've got to know who to block and when. They've got a lot more experience, and that's enabled them to just play and be themselves."
Considering all those advantages, plus the tips Sheridan bestows after almost every play in practice, Rodriguez believes Forcier is ahead of where Sheridan was at this time last year. "Last year they were all new in the system, so it was a little bit tougher on the quarterbacks," Rodriguez said. "With Nick being out, the learning curve is accelerated as far as Tate being with the first group. That's not a bad thing."
Forcier met with Rodriguez and quarterbacks coach Rod Smith daily between his arrival in January and the start of spring practice last month. He said he grasped concepts in the meeting room, but actually putting them to use on the field has reinforced them. "I've always been more of a visual learner so it hasn't been as hard for me, but coach Smith and coach Rodriguez, they did a great job of really explaining it," Forcier said. "They made it as easy as they possibly can make it for me. ... Once you do it more and more, it just comes more naturally."
Forcier's teammates have helped as well. Tailback Brandon Minor has calmed Forcier on several occasions. Minor laughed as he described Forcier giving instructions on where to line up when he should have been barking his cadence. Minor, a senior, reminded the freshman that he already knew where to line up. "Just worry about the plays," Minor said. "He's just thinking too much."
Guilty as charged, Forcier said. "Coach Rodriguez and coach Smith were saying that they can tell that I'm thinking too much," Forcier said. "When they can tell that I'm thinking too much, I probably am. They are doing a great job of making me more comfortable with it." As spring practice has progressed, Forcier has noticed himself becoming more instinctive. He hopes that by August, he'll eliminate any delays caused by over-thinking. Between now and then, Forcier also wants to do something else. He wants to get Barwis-ized.
Strength coach Mike Barwis was a cult hero at West Virginia and quickly has become one in Michigan, and Forcier hopes a summer working with Barwis will make him strong enough to withstand the pounding a quarterback must take in Rodriguez's offense. Forcier, who did very little lifting in high school, already has noticed gains from the two months he spent with Barwis before spring practice began.
"Coach Barwis has definitely showed me a little bit of a different life," Forcier said. "He's doing a great job with it, and I've got to give a lot of credit to him. He's trying to bring me along as fast as he can. ... Coming here, you're [bench-pressing] a 45-pound plate on each side, it's kind of pathetic. He's gotten me a lot stronger."
Forcier will need to be plenty strong to stay with the first team after Sheridan gets healthy and Robinson arrives. But as long as the quarterback who wins the job can lead the Wolverines to wins on Saturdays, Forcier said it doesn't matter who that quarterback is. "We've got to make each other the best we can make each other," Forcier said. "It's about winning for Michigan. You want to make yourself better, but you want the program to succeed. ... Whoever wins the job, let the best man win."