Tough times fade from view
Seniors emerge from Rich Rodriguez era, help Michigan transition
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Denard Robinson will never forget his first snap as a Michigan quarterback, as one of two freshmen running the Wolverines' offense that game. He was raw. He was fast but didn't have the pedigree of his classmate, Wolverines starting quarterback Tate Forcier. Even worse, when he received the shotgun snap, he dropped it, and for a second, it looked like an inauspicious beginning to a college career. That is, until he picked it up and in one play -- his first play -- did what he would so often do throughout the next three years at Michigan.
"That was not in the playbook, but I made it in the playbook, I guess," Robinson said last month. "It was God-given talent to do that.
"I watched it a couple times and one of the guys I made miss went to my high school."
Michigan won that game and the next three, starting the careers of the now-fourth-year seniors with an undefeated conference record and two freshman quarterbacks who had massive potential.
The next two-plus seasons would not be so easy.
It is a group that has seen it all at Michigan. Some of them, such as fifth-year senior J.T. Floyd, started their careers as redshirts on a Wolverines team that went 3-9. They endured a coaching transition from Rich Rodriguez, who brought them all to Michigan, to Brady Hoke, who helped turn them in one season from a mediocre team to the Allstate Sugar Bowl champion.
On defense, they went from being maligned early in their careers as one of the worst units statistically in Michigan history to becoming one of the most improved in the country last season -- all while playing for two (and in the case of the fifth-year seniors, three) defensive coordinators. On offense, they shifted from a zone read spread offense under Rodriguez to attempting to learn a hybrid offense leaning toward pro-style tendencies under offensive coordinator Al Borges.
"It always boils down to wins and losses," Floyd said. "Always boils down to that because losing is the toughest part for me. I'm a competitor and strive to win in everything I do."
For the entirety of the Rodriguez era at Michigan, the Wolverines didn't win -- certainly not to the level the Michigan fan base and players had come to expect. Two of Rodriguez's three seasons with the Wolverines ended with losing records. They also dealt with the first major NCAA sanctions in the history of the program related to excess stretching and practice time.
Still, Rodriguez brought most of the players now having success to Michigan. He recruited Robinson out of Deerfield Beach, Fla., to be a quarterback. He plucked defensive end Craig Roh and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan out of Arizona. He flipped receiver Roy Roundtree from Purdue to Michigan and found running back Fitzgerald Toussaint in Ohio. He discovered safety Jordan Kovacs at a walk-on tryout.
Most of the key components to last season's success at Michigan and this season's leadership core came from Rodriguez and were molded by both him and Hoke.
"It made us even hungrier," Robinson said. "The seniors, we went through that and that's what a family does. A family is going to have ups and downs and through thick and thin, no matter what. You're going to have those ups and downs.
"You're going to be able to fight, not quit. That's what's going on right now. We're still fighting."
Hoke, though, has not focused on a past he had nothing to do with. Since he arrived at Michigan, he has squarely kept the focus on the present, be it with his senior class last season to help restore the Wolverines program or his group this year.
He said he has not inquired about those experiences, either.
"Really not much and I don't ask," Hoke said. "We don't live in the past, you know. We live in the future. The only thing I really care about is what we're doing daily."
His players, the same ones brought in by Rodriguez, will often echo the same sentiments. They want to focus on what has happened at Michigan now and where they want it to go in the future.
But they also recognize one thing -- their past helped bring them to their present, where they are hoping for that future to be brighter than it was when they arrived in Ann Arbor.
"Everybody just understands," Kovacs said. "We've gone through struggles and haven't won that Big Ten championship yet.
"But it made us the team we are today and we're excited to put that back."