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Notebook: Denard Robinson could return kicks in Outback Bowl

Erin Kirkland/Daly
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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 29, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. — If you believe his coach, Michigan senior quarterback Denard Robinson is a player who can do just about anything. That excludes punting, a fact which Michigan coach Brady Hoke repeated for comedic effect.

But that includes returning kicks and punts, an area where, Hoke said, “we might” use him in the Outback Bowl against No. 11 South Carolina on New Year’s Day. Robinson has lined up just once as a returner in his collegiate career, on Oct. 20 against Michigan State, for a kickoff that was not returned. That came before the nerve injury in his right elbow that has prevented him from attempting a single pass since Oct. 27.

Since that injury, Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges have experimented with different ways to get the ball into Robinson’s hands. He has lined up as a non-throwing quarterback, a running back, a scat back and a wide receiver. Those attempts were successful against Iowa and also for one half against Ohio State. In the second half of that game, though, the Buckeyes were able to suffocate the Michigan offense by keying on Robinson, the Wolverines’ most explosive playmaker.

After the Buckeyes’ victory, Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers explained that, with Robinson, Michigan had become predictable.

“You know, they put (Robinson) back there, he was gonna run it,” Withers said. “And they put (junior quarterback Devin Gardner) back there, they were gonna throw it.”

No. 19 Michigan can’t heal Robinson’s arm any more quickly — Hoke said Robinson was “throwing the ball well,” but wouldn’t say that Robinson was throwing as well as he’d like. But the Wolverines can eliminate the problems of predictability that come when the quarterback can’t actually throw the ball.

The return game depends not on predictability but on talent. If Robinson is in fact the returner, Michigan can dare the Gamecocks to stop one of college football most electric runners in open space.

Hoke explained it like this: “There’s certain things guys do really well. You know, we talked about Jake Ryan having pretty good football instincts,” referring to the unorthodox but effective redshirt sophomore linebacker.

“Well, I mean he didn’t learn them, he just has them. And you know, Denard has a pretty good instinct of running with the football.”

Robinson should feel comfortable in open space, but fielding the kick could present a problem. Robinson was a centerfielder, though, in high school, Hoke said, “so seeing the ball of the bat and all those things, you look at the punt game or the kickoff game, he’s a guy that has the skill level to field balls.”

Hoke offered no certainties as to how often Robinson would be lined up as the returner, or if at all. That’s in line with his assessment from earlier in the season, after Robinson originally lined up as a kickoff returner.

The intent there, Hoke said at a press conference on Oct. 22, was to “maybe return a kickoff.”

Asked if he was concerned about his star offensive player getting injured, Hoke said, “I’m concerned you can walk down the street and fall off the curb. Really.”

The next week, Robinson sustained an injury that hampered him for the rest of the year, diving for extra yards on a quarterback run. He hasn’t been able to line up for a return since.

UNCERTAINTY AT RUNNING BACK: The Wolverines have yet to name a starting tailback for Tuesday’s game. Sophomore Thomas Rawls, redshirt freshman Justice Hayes and fifth-year senior Vincent Smith each will compete for the starting job, a position Hoke said has “not really” been decided.

Redshirt junior Fitzgerald Toussaint had started every game, excluding his suspension for the season opener against Alabama, until he sustained a season-ending leg injury against Iowa on Nov. 17. None of the three potential replacements established himself in Toussaint’s absence.

After Toussaint went out against the Hawkeyes, Rawls received the bulk of the touches for the remainder of the game but gained just 22 yards on eight carries. Smith finished with just nine yards and Hayes gained four yards on two carries.

Against Ohio State, Rawls and Smith combined for a paltry 14 yards on 10 carries.