So long, Shoelace: Denard Robinson preparing to wrap up uncommon career
TAMPA, Fla. -- Denard Robinson thrilled and aggravated. He excelled and failed. Ripped off breathtaking runs of true brilliance, and tossed interceptions just as maddening.
He holds the school record for touchdowns and total offense. He holds the school record for interceptions.
Perhaps no Michigan player, at least in recent memory, has been as dichotomous as Shoelace -- endearing himself to fans by carrying the Wolverines to great heights, but flawed enough to leave them wanting more.
Robinson's highlight reel is a long one, and will be played well after his days at Michigan are finished. And when Robinson wakes up in the morning, his final day will have arrived, an Outback Bowl matchup Tuesday against No. 11 South Carolina (10-2).
But he's not thinking about the sterling 43-yard touchdown run that opened his career. Not about the thrill of rocketing onto the national stage with record days against Connecticut and Notre Dame in 2010. Not about the comeback against Notre Dame in 2011, nor his record day that helped slay Ohio State in 2011.
Many will watch No. 16 for the final time and think about the good Denard.
Denard, though, is thinking about the bad Denard.
"I think I like the lows," Robinson said. "They make me appreciate the highs."
Robinson recalls his freshman season, when he came to Michigan because he was promised a chance to compete for time at quarterback right away, but spent the year as a change-of-pace complement to starter Tate Forcier.
His talent was always there, evidenced by that 43-yard touchdown against Western Michigan on his first collegiate snap. It came on a broken play, portending the greatness that was to come.
But Robinson was raw. He wasn't a polished passer, and didn't know the offense, and it came slowly to him.
"My freshman year, not being on the field, that humbled me a little more and made me know that, 'OK, you can't just be an average person. You got to be uncommon,'" Robinson said. "That's something Tony Dungy told us the other day.
"For you to accomplish uncommon things, you have to be uncommon."
Good. Bad. Somewhere in between.
Robinson scaled the full spectrum of performance. But no matter the day, he was always uncommon.
He set the school single-game offense record in his first start against Connecticut in 2010 -- then broke his own mark the following week with 502 yards against Notre Dame. And, more significantly to him, he led a game-winning touchdown drive that he punctuated with a 2-yard scoring run with 27 seconds remaining.
He was off and running, vaulting right into the record books, right into the nation's eye.
Robinson became an instant Heisman Trophy contender, but faded to sixth place after struggling in Big Ten play. He became mistake-prone in the passing game, a foible he would never shake.
But the numbers were there. As a sophomore, Robinson set a single-season quarterback rushing record with 1,702 yards, a mark that stood until Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch rushed for 1,771 this year.
Paired with his trademark dreadlocks and incandescent smile, Robinson became the face of Michigan football.
"You can't walk anywhere with Denard, and expect to just get there," fellow captain Jordan Kovacs said. "I can go incognito, because I look like everybody else. You walk with Denard, and you have to anticipate getting stopped by damn near everybody you pass.
"And they have to ask him for a signature, then you for a signature, and not even realize who you are walking with Denard."
Junior Devin Gardner recalls a time at the Michigan Union on campus in 2010 when a fan approached Robinson for an autograph -- on his forehead.
"I couldn't believe it. Ridiculous," Gardner said. "That's the craziest thing in the world."
Crazy? Sure. Out of the ordinary?
Not for Robinson, who attracts a crowd wherever he goes.
"He gets all kinds of crazy fan requests," Kovacs said. "The guy can't walk 10 feet without someone walking up to him."
Robinson plowed through the good and the bad to start 34 consecutive games for Michigan. But as he tried to place Michigan in the catbird's seat for a Legends Division title this year against Nebraska, his storybook career took a turn.
He was stepped on by a Nebraska defender after a second-quarter run, damaging the ulnar nerve in his throwing elbow. Coach Brady Hoke initially called him day-to-day, but the injury proved to be more serious.
Robinson missed the next two games, then spent the final two regular-season games of his career rotating between tailback, receiver and quarterback. He had success, rushing for a team-best 98 yards against Iowa and 122 yards against Ohio State, but has not attempted a pass since the injury.
Gardner has replaced him as Michigan's full-time quarterback. And, with Robinson's throwing arm still not 100 percent, he is expected to fill a similar role in his career finale.
"Our defensive coaches feel like we’ve got to be prepared for both of them – the run, the pass," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said. "They both can pass, they both can run. You just go play.
"That run against Ohio State was really impressive, when both guys just bounced off him and he went for a touchdown. You just got to wrap up and play the best you can."
Robinson cemented his legacy as Michigan's quarterback, but will finish his career in an entirely different role. But his personality endures.
He is bubbly in his play. On a practice field, it seems as though he never stops moving, never stops bouncing. He doesn't walk on, off or around the field -- he skips.
He is excitable. That was a problem early in his career, as he got too jacked before games.
He said he expects to have those same emotions as he prepares to play his final game in a winged helmet.
"I think it's the same way," Robinson said. "You get excited, and you get butterflies in your stomach, and that's the feeling I get right now. I know it'll probably get emotional after the game, but right before the game, I got to be the same Denard as always."
That Denard could be good, could be bad.
But no matter which Denard shows up for one final show, he'll always be uncommon.
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