Michigan players got used to seeing amazing things from Denard Robinson last season, but one thing they witnessed in January really surprised them.
Rumors started popping up that Robinson might transfer after the Wolverines fired coach Rich Rodriguez. Tired of the speculation, Robinson stood up before the entire team and adamantly -- even angrily -- insisted he was not going anywhere.
Teammates such as defensive tackle Mike Martin said they had never seen that side of Robinson. A friendly, likable guy, Robinson still comes off as shy and a bit reticent in his media interviews. Within the locker room, at least, that's changing as the fiery manner he showed in that January talk has carried over onto the field.
"He was pretty quiet last year," tight end Kevin Koger said. "This year, he's really taken control of the huddle."
Robinson is now exuding the confidence and leadership of a second-year starter, one who put up record-breaking numbers in last season. That confidence will be needed this season as Michigan goes through a major transition, perhaps the biggest of which involves its top playmaker.
The Wolverines are switching to a West Coast offense under coordinator Al Borges, and head coach Brady Hoke wants to establish a power running game as the team's mentality. Neither of those things necessarily fit the skills of Robinson, who ran for a Big Ten-best 1,702 yards last year and scored 14 touchdowns on the ground.
So how do you change philosophies without sacrificing the best weapon you have? That's the fine line Michigan is trying to walk with Robinson.
"We do some things that will feature him," Borges said. "We’re not trying to turn him into a total pocket passer, don’t misunderstand me, but we can do some things with him within the pocket that will allow him to see better down the field and threaten the run from our passing game. He’s a guy who you want to make a good passer, but you also want to be able to threaten that quarterback draw, too, when it isn’t there.”
Hoke said he'd like to get Robinson about 10-to-15 running plays per game. Robinson ran it an average of 19.7 times last season, and that's including all the time he missed with injuries.
Publicly, Robinson just shrugs and says he's happy to do whatever the coaches ask.
"If a broken play happens and I have to run, I'll run," he said. "If I have to throw, I'll throw."
Robinson quickly agreed when asked if he thought he was underrated as a passer. He played in a pass-based offense in high school and completed 62.5 percent of his passes last season. He struggled with his accuracy in some Big Ten games and tied for the most interceptions in the league with 11. So understandably, critics wonder if he can run a Borges offense as Cade McNown and Jason Campbell did in previous Borges stops.
"I'm going to try to prove them wrong," Robinson said.
Borges said Robinson's footwork has improved immensely since the start of spring practice, and he sees a quarterback who can deliver in the passing game.
"He’s completing a high percentage," Borges said. "He has no trouble making any of the throws. That’s what probably has been my biggest surprise. He can throw darn near anything you throw out. Now because he’s not the tallest kid, you’ve got to get him in position where he can see those throws. But in terms of arm strength, that’s a non-issue.”
Keeping Robinson in the pocket more may take away some of his explosive runs, but it could keep him on the field more. Though he played in every game last year, he had a hard time staying in most games as the season wore on, continually taking big hits on running plays. Robinson admits he was "kind of beat up" by the end of the season.
Michigan doesn't need him to win the Heisman to have a bounce-back season. The Wolverines need him to make plays within the system and keep the offense clicking as hopefully Hoke helps rebuild the defense. Robinson is confident he can get that done.
"He's taken charge, and he's competitive," Hoke said. "He's challenging the guys, not just on the offensive side of the ball. There is some competitiveness challenging the guys on defense. He is doing it the right way, so that kind of stuff is fun."