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Thursday, January 24, 2013
Can Denard Robinson catch on?

By Rob Peterson

Denard Robinson
Denard Robinson's transition from QB to wide receiver will have some bumps.

MOBILE, Ala. -- Denard Robinson's biggest change this week at the Senior Bowl hasn't been his position but rather the color of his jersey.

Robinson, the record-setting quarterback from Michigan, is making a much-publicized switch to wide receiver. But for the first two days of practice, he hadn't had much of chance to play wide receiver because he has been limited by an ulnar nerve injury.

Yet he wanted to be on the field. So, for his protection, Robinson had to wear a yellow jersey quarterbacks wear at Senior Bowl practices.

Yellow meant caution. Yellow meant hands off. Yellow meant sitting on the sideline during 11-on-11 learning about his new position. It meant Robinson couldn't show his future potential employers what he could do. It was like he was tagging along with friends on their job interviews.

But for Wednesday's practice, the only yellow (pardon, maize) Robinson sported was on Michigan's iconic winged helmet as he wore the white jersey provided to offensive players. That was more than OK by him.

"It feels great to get the white jersey on," Robinson said with a smile after practice.

For Robinson, the change was as symbolic as it was literal.

With the white jersey, Robinson became a football player again. On the first two days in yellow, Robinson took reps in one-on-one drills, but the defensive backs couldn't press him or wrap him up. After running a route, Robinson would seek advice from the guys who have been playing the position for years. On Tuesday, after running one route, Robinson watched as Marshall's Aaron Dobson showed him how to execute a proper plant and cut.

On Wednesday, Robinson was running routes against press coverage, fighting for passes in the air and hitting the ground. He was active. He was ready.

"It felt good today to be out there playing," he said.

With the white jersey, Robinson also cut ties with the position he has played his whole life. He is a wide receiver now, and he has to show the scores of general managers, coaches and scouts that he can produce against top-level competition at the Senior Bowl.

"I've seen the guys working hard," Robinson said. "You're down here with the best. You're not down here with slackers. You're here trying."

On Wednesday, Robinson showed his transition would not be seamless. He had trouble with the subtleties of the position. Scouts Inc. noted he had difficulties with his route running.

"He really struggled in the beginning of practice with his 90-degree cuts," Scouts Inc.'s Steve Muench said. "He also had a hard time gearing down, planting that outside foot and then exploding."

Robinson also had difficulty catching passes with any zip on them, as his hands are not as soft and as certain as his colleagues'. Once during full-team practice, the position coach had to run up behind Robinson and physically move him to the proper spot in the formation. The learning curve will be steep.

"You have to make sure get out of the routes fast," Robinson said. "You have to make sure you're not thinking too much and counting your steps and counting where you need to be.

"You have to just go out and play football."

At Michigan, Robinson played football quite well. As a sophomore, he became the first Football Bowl Subdivision player to throw for 2,500 yards and run for 1,500 yards in a season. This season, he broke the FBS record for most career rushing yards by a quarterback with 4,495.

So why the switch to wide receiver? While mobile quarterbacks who can create offense with their feet are all the rage in the NFL, Robinson's measured height of 5-foot-10½ pushes the boundary for small QBs. Robinson has explosive speed, and some team could benefit by getting the ball in his hands as a receiver or a kick returner. At Michigan, he would handle the ball on every play. In the NFL, someone else is going to need to get him the ball. He is going to need to learn how to get open, and he is going to need to learn how to do that as soon as possible.

That's how things change when you want to chase your dream. That Robinson is even trying to learn a new position at the Senior Bowl is a testament to his willingness to learn.

"I'm excited for it," Robinson said, "because I've played football all my life."

After the Senior Bowl, the man they call Shoelace, because he plays with his shoelaces untied, will head back to Michigan to tie up the loose ends of his academic career.

"I always promised myself I would finish up school," Robinson said.

He will graduate May 4 at Michigan Stadium with a degree in sociology. After that, Robinson's education will continue in the NFL.