Randle El sees self in Denard

Former Indiana QB believes he blazed path for Robinson to follow

Updated: October 11, 2012, 8:43 AM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Late on Saturday afternoon, with Michigan's victory over Purdue long decided, quarterback Denard Robinson took one more dash up the middle of the Boilermakers defense.

It wasn't one of his eye-popping, jaw-dropping, cutting-at-a-right-angle runs people have become accustomed to, rather just another medium-sized gain in a career full of them. This one had a different significance.

With it Robinson broke a record which stood for almost 11 years, the Big Ten career rushing mark for quarterbacks held by former Indiana signal-caller Antwaan Randle El. Recently retired from an NFL career as a receiver, Randle El wasn't disappointed to see his record fall.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images Denard Robinson lead the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 135.2 yards per game.
"I feel like I set the trend for these types of quarterbacks to come in and really play at a high level and do some of this running stuff," Randle El said. "There wasn't a whole lot of guys doing it when I did it. I think I was the guy and then from that, since 2002, different guys have come in to do it.

"Brad Smith, Pat White and other guys have come in and done some of the things I've done at quarterback, being able to run and to pass. That's one of the new evolutions going."

Before Saturday, only White, Smith and former Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick had amassed more quarterback rushing yards than Randle El, who had 3,895 in his career. Then Robinson, now with 3,905, passed him for fourth place in the FBS and first in the Big Ten.

Robinson, though, isn't focused on that record or the 576 yards he needs to pass White to become the best rushing quarterback in FBS history.

"Nah, I don't even think about it," Robinson said. "I just go out and play football and have fun with the team and try to enjoy this year."

If Robinson considers it, though, he'll notice how much he and Randle El are similar. Both were electrifying, making plays in their sport few, if any, could. Randle El saw it after being first made aware of Robinson during the Michigan quarterback's sophomore season.

And when he saw Robinson's game, he almost had flashbacks.

The moves. The speed. Randle El saw himself in Robinson. He even watched some of his old college games and saw the resemblance.

"It was definitely like, 'Oh, this kid is good,' " Randle El said. "What captivated me was his speed. When he got out in the open and he made you miss, that was it."

Randle El was the same way during his four seasons in the Big Ten, setting a quarterback running mark that stood until Saturday, when Robinson broke it.

When Randle El, now an analyst on the Big Ten Network and also a commentator in Washington, D.C., sees Robinson, he also sees a similar future to his.

Set records in college. Play receiver and be a returner in the NFL. While Randle El said he would "love for" Robinson to play quarterback in the NFL if he could pull it off, he also doesn't know how realistic it is.

"That's his best bet [becoming a receiver] just because of what he presents in his passing game right now," Randle El said. "I mean, he's had numerous amounts of opportunities to prove he could be a better passer and it just hasn't happened.

"For an NFL team, if I'm a GM or I'm a coach and bringing in a guy like that, that's the first thing I'm thinking, to give him a shot maybe being my kick returner, give him a shot being my slot receiver, see if he can catch punts."

The other thing which concerns Randle El about Robinson's future as a quarterback is he hasn't seen consistency as a passer. He sees his completion percentage against college defenses -- 57.6 entering Saturday -- and knows how much more difficult it is to pass against the elite defenses in the NFL.

Brad Smith
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesFormer Missouri QB Brad Smith, now a receiver with the Buffalo Bills, is one of the few QBs still ahead of Denard Robinson in career rushing.
There is little doubt, though, about Robinson's future in the league. It just remains a question of where.

"He's a good football player," said Smith, now a wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills. "Very fast. Very instinctive. Playmaker and has good vision. Just the way he moves, the way he plays, he definitely has that talent."

Smith also understands what Robinson might go through. He prepared as a quarterback for the 2006 NFL Draft and was selected in the fourth round by the New York Jets. Since then, he has played a bit of everything, from quarterback in Wildcat packages to wide receiver and even returner.

His versatility has helped him stay in the league. His advice to Robinson is simple.

"Whatever he feels his passion and his heart is, he should go for it," Smith said.

Randle El's advice is similar to Smith's for Robinson -- figure out what you want to do and stick with it.

"If playing quarterback is what you desire to do and you have no you have no desire to play wide receiver or kick returner or whatever, then that's what you do," Randle El said. "You go after it but you've got to know what you're up against."

Randle El did say, though, he would suggest to Robinson he consider making the switch to receiver once he concludes his Michigan career.

Robinson has yet to divulge his future plans. Before the season he said he wants to prove he can be a quarterback in college while deflecting any questions about his potential professional career.

Until then, there is the rest of his final Michigan season and more records to set. With three men separating him and the career quarterback rushing record, at least one of those three is pulling for him.

"I want him to go out and be the best player he can be and any record he can break and anything he can do, I want him to do it," Smith said. "To me, it's not a big deal.

"I'm definitely rooting for him."

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter