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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. Hayes did not receive a carry.

Hoke conceded on Saturday that “we have not been a football team that’s run the ball great from a tailback perspective for multiple reasons.”

He said the starter job is “gonna depend on a lot of different factors,” but did not expound.

CLOWNEY QUESTIONS, BRO: The matchup to watch on New Year’s Day is redshirt junior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan’s battle with South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Both are first-team All Americans.

Lewan is one of the nation’s best lineman and has been dominant this year for Michigan. But even Lewan might need some help blocking Clowney, who is the country’s most fearsome defensive lineman and likely the best overall defensive player other than Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o.

“Well I think anybody can be blocked one-on-one,” Hoke said. “How long you block him is what the key is.

“Whether it’s doubling him or chipping him or single-blocking him or play action, cutting, whatever you want to do, you got to execute it, and there’s got to be a timing presence to all your pass plays.”

Clowney recorded 13 sacks in the regular season, which tied for the nation’s best. But any extra attention he receives will open up the rest of a dominant Gamecock front seven.

As a unit, the defense ranked eighth in sacks, and South Carolina ranked in the top-20 in scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense and total defense.

“You got to block them, number one,” Hoke said. “I think they’re very talented, the front seven. I think they’re very athletic. In the game of football, you got to take care of the football, and you’ve got to be able to run the ball.

“We’ll have our hands full.”

The Lewan-Clowney matchup will likely have professional implications, as well. On Friday, Lewan said he had nearly decided whether or not he will declare for the NFL Draft, where he will likely be among the first players to be selected. Clowney, who is not yet eligible for the draft, is expected to be the first player off the board if he decides to leave after the 2013 season.

NOTES: Hoke said the team is “really good” health-wise, and he knocked twice on the table in front of him for luck. “I mean hopefully we can stay that way,” Hoke added. According to AnnArbor.com, fifth-year senior lineman Patrick Omameh wore a cast on his left hand Friday, but Hoke said he will play on Tuesday.