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Outback Bowl features quarterback questions and exiting stars

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Lucas Pasch, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 31, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. — As the No. 19 Michigan football team prepares to ring in the New Year on Monday night, coaches and players embrace the fact that play time is over.

Over the past few days, players have bowled in a friendly competition against their Outback Bowl opponents from South Carolina, fed giraffes at the Busch Gardens safari and spent a day at the beach. But with the game time set for 1 p.m. on New Year’s Day, they’ve refocused their attention to the looming competition.

“There are some guys on our football team who have never been to Florida,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “So it’s been a nice little experience for them. But at the end of the day, it’s about competing to win. For us, we talk so much and believe so much in our senior class — it’s about sending them out the right way.”

One of those seniors, quarterback Denard Robinson, has talked about enjoying his last go-around in a maize and blue jersey. This season, Robinson solidified his place in Michigan lore as one of the most dynamic athletes in the history of the program, having become the school’s all-time leader in total yardage and touchdowns, and Hoke’s utilization of Robinson’s talents will be a focal point against the 11th-ranked Gamecocks (6-2 SEC, 10-2 overall).

Since Robinson damaged the ulnar nerve in his throwing elbow against Nebraska on Oct. 27, junior quarterback Devin Gardner has taken the reigns under center, and Robinson has become an all-purpose athlete of sorts, lining up at quarterback, tailback and in the slot. Expect to see more of the same on Jan. 1.

“It’s how we’ve ended the year — Devin will be the starting quarterback, and Denard will play some quarterback,” Hoke said. “But it’s really how we finished the year, the last three ball games, four ball games, is how we’ll play now.”

In those games, Robinson did not attempt a pass when he lined up at quarterback, either keeping the ball himself or optioning to the tailback instead. Though the presumption is that he will not pass against South Carolina, either, Hoke would not confirm so and actually said that he has been throwing the ball nicely in practice this week.

“Everything is possible with (Robinson), athletically. But he won’t punt.” Hoke joked.

“Kickoffs?” asked South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who was sitting next to Hoke in the joint press conference on Monday.

“No, he’s not very good at that, either,” Hoke said.

Coincidentally, South Carolina’s quarterback situation is murky as well. Spurrier named junior Connor Shaw his starter on Monday but also mentioned that redshirt sophomore Dylan Thompson, who has been very effective in stints, is “going to play in there somewhere.”

Shaw, who has reportedly recovered nicely from a sprained foot at the end of the season, is a dual-threat quarterback who has done solid work keeping the run-threat alive since star running back Marcus Lattimore shredded ligaments in his knee midway through the season. Thompson is more of a pocket passer who hits his receivers effectively, despite a receiving corps consisting of conspicuously small targets.

“I was thinking about that yesterday — we had one formation where (5-foot-8 Ace Sanders, 5-foot-7 Nick Jones and 5-foot-9 Damiere Byrd) are all three in a row out there,” Spurrier said Saturday. “I said, ‘Dang, we got a bunch of little guys, don’t we?’ … But they can play.”

The three top Gamecock receivers also received a boost with the news that Michigan’s top cornerback, fifth-year senior J.T. Floyd, wouldn’t make the trip to Florida, as he was suspended along with fifth-year senior linebacker Brandin Hawthorne and junior punter Will Hagerup for unspecified reasons.

Still, the Wolverine secondary is stout, and like Hoke, Spurrier is steadfast in his commitment to a run-first offense. For both teams, the play of the defensive front seven will be a key to success.

For South Carolina, All-American sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the game-changer. He led the SEC in sacks this season (13), and even when he’s not making a play in the backfield, he draws double teams that open space for other linemen or blitzing linebackers and safeties.

How a play evolves often depends on what Spurrier has Clowney doing.

“He’s pretty good one-on-one as a pass rusher,” Spurrier said. “I don’t know what Coach Hoke’s got planned for it, I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.