Denard cements his legacy
Through thick and thin quarterback dazzled with his smile, speed and agility
For much of the past three seasons, he has been Michigan's quarterback, the face of its program and also the cause of consternation, depending on what he had done in a given game. Should he stay at quarterback? Why wouldn't he stay at quarterback? All this depended on the game, the drive, the play.
People almost universally love Robinson the person, even if Robinson the player sometimes bothers them. Along the way, Robinson has set or tied at least 12 Michigan records entering his final game in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina.
In that game, he has a chance to become the FBS career rushing leader for a quarterback if he gains more than 85 yards against the Gamecocks.
"He's been able to represent the program in a great way on and off the field," said the man who recruited him to Ann Arbor, former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez. "One of the most exciting players to play, not only at Michigan but I think in the history of the Big Ten. I also think he is everything that you want a college football player to be on and off the field.
"His love for the game and his love to compete is why I think college football is so great. I think Denard personifies that."
A raw start
Robinson began his career as change-of-pace backup to another freshman, Tate Forcier. Robinson's first career play was a fumbled snap he picked up and ran 43 yards for a touchdown against Western Michigan.
"I knew the basic plays," Robinson said earlier this year when asked to reflect on his freshman season. "It was more of me wanting to be a freelancer and just playing. After a while I got the basic plays and once I got it, it was toward the end of the season I started learning the offense."
"The game was probably a little fast for him because he was a true freshman," Rodriguez said. "But it wasn't overwhelming for him. His improvement from his first year to his second year, you could see how everything was slowing down for him."
He had to beat out the incumbent, Forcier, after his freshman season. Forcier possessed the skills to be a good spread quarterback. Though inconsistent, he had the ability to make big plays. He didn't have Robinson's speed, but Forcier could run, had a good arm and was accurate.
Forcier had settled a bit entering spring practice after his freshman season. Meanwhile, Robinson continued to push and grasp the Michigan offense. He improved his throwing technique and figured out how to use his arm to make plays in addition to his legs.
"He really exploded that spring," then-Michigan quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said. "You could just tell this kid's got something. He's going to be really special before it's all said and done.
"He jumped on the scene like not many people have his sophomore year."
Michigan's coaches knew they had a potentially special quarterback when they recruited Robinson out of Deerfield Beach, Fla.; they were convinced that he was the best quarterback to run their system since Pat White, whose quarterback rushing record Robinson will try to break on Tuesday.
Now it was time for everyone else to see it.
Robinson beat out Forcier and incoming freshman Devin Gardner to win the starting quarterback job entering his sophomore season. It began against Connecticut in a game in which the school rededicated Michigan Stadium.
Robinson had shown glimpses of progress during the spring scrimmage, but nothing compared to his first month as the starter. Against UConn, he completed 19 of 22 passes for 186 yards, rushed for 197 yards and had two touchdowns.
In two weeks, he had gone from question mark to star.
"Denard's talent, not just his physical talent but his mental talent and ability to get guys to rally around him and all that -- that was something you could see coming to the forefront," Rodriguez said. "I think he did a really good job his second year, was really phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal in games.
"We thought, and still think, he will continue to be one of those guys folks at Michigan talk about for a long, long time."
As a sophomore, Robinson set a single-season quarterback rushing record of 1,702 yards -- broken this year by Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch. That season, Robinson finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting to Cam Newton. But it appeared that with natural progression, he would eventually reach New York.
"He was offensive player of the year in the Big Ten and was still learning," Rodriguez said. "We felt this guy not only was going to be special in our league, but that he was going to be a guy who was invited to New York at a Heisman ceremony in the next couple years."
Things were about to change.
A different fit
Rodriguez and his staff were fired following Robinson's sophomore season and depending on whom one asked, Robinson was either never going to transfer (Robinson) or at least contemplated it (his high school coach, Art Taylor) before deciding to stick with the Wolverines.
"It was a pro-style offense when he first came in," Taylor said. "That concerned Denard a little bit, but Denard being Denard he said, 'If that's what I have to do to run it, I'll learn that and I can do that too.'
"There was concern in the beginning, but in the end Michigan, the school itself, won Denard over whoever the new coach was coming in. I believe Denard really fell in love with the school. Denard is not one of those kids who quits to go somewhere else. He likes to finish things he starts."
It was not the easiest transition. Robinson needed to focus on footwork issues with offensive coordinator Al Borges, who had never had a player like Robinson at quarterback. Robinson needed to learn different route trees and was asked to make different, more difficult throws than when he was a 62.5 percent passer as a sophomore under Rodriguez.
He had intermittent success his junior season, flipping between accurate games and ones in which things appeared quite foreign.
His team, though, played well. The Wolverines went 11-2 and won the Allstate Sugar Bowl in new coach Brady Hoke's first season in Ann Arbor. Robinson had an iconic moment leading another game-winning drive against Notre Dame in the first night game at Michigan Stadium.
Robinson appeared to grasp the new offense down the stretch, especially when the offense looked more like the spread than a pro-style.
In the final three games of the 2011 regular season, he completed 60 percent of his passes, capped by a 14-of-17 performance for 167 yards and three touchdowns in Michigan's first victory over Ohio State since 2003.
Finishing what he started
Robinson had grown at Michigan from a player who, as a freshman, spoke too fast in the huddle and barely at all otherwise to someone who spoke on behalf of the players in front of hundreds of people at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon in July.
There, the usually private Robinson shared part of his story, opening up more in his final year.
He entered the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate. All offseason, his coaches raved about his improved accuracy and decision-making and about how quarterbacks flourished in their second year under Borges.
Robinson completed less than 50 percent of his passes in only two games this season -- against Alabama in the season-opener and against Michigan State -- but often looked as if he hadn't improved much. He threw four interceptions against Notre Dame in his first loss to the Irish, but he helped the Wolverines win for the first time in five years against the Spartans.
But on a cold October night in Nebraska, he injured his elbow. He then missed the first two games of his career and when he returned to the lineup, two things had happened: Gardner had shown he could be Michigan's quarterback and Robinson couldn't throw.
So he was beginning the end of his career the same way he started it -- as a run-first quarterback who would have to create plays with his legs. To get on the field, Robinson would be a running back, wide receiver and quarterback. This also may have cemented how he would be thought of in the future.
"Everybody knows, if they know me, I'll do whatever it takes for the team," Robinson said after his final home game in November. "I'm the kind of person that if I can go, I can go, and I won't hold back. I'll do whatever for this team."
Robinson quarterbacked the Wolverines through a transition and never complained. He did what was asked, tried to put together as much as he could and stuck it out when he could have left.
"His legacy at Michigan is going to be one of a little bit of tumultuous times because of the time Rich was there, but he is probably a guy who weathered the storm of the transition," former Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. "I hope Michigan people who have a lot of pride in their players being called Michigan Men think of Denard as a Michigan Man.
"He's certainly earned it."
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