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SportsMonday Column: A glimpse of the future, a salute to the past

Todd Needle/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 3, 2013

It was a peculiar little moment.

As five-star running back Derrick Green strolled to the head table in a banquet hall in Richmond, Va. to pledge his commitment to Michigan, Auburn or Tennessee, Denard Robinson, tucked back in a locker room in Mobile, Ala., reached up and strapped on the famed winged helmet for the final time. It was 4 p.m. on Jan. 26, the last Saturday in January.

In that moment, Michigan’s future eclipsed its past.

With the eyes of the nation on him, Green, the No. 1 high-school running back in the country, according to Rivals.com, and a top-10 overall recruit, looked at the three hats lined up on the table and made his announcement.

“I’m going to be taking my talents to the University of …”

Green paused to set aside the microphone. He had said on Twitter a day before that he was going to “shock the world,” which was either very good or very bad for Michigan, his prospective favorite, depending on if it was a veiled reference to the Fab Five or sincere foreshadowing. Thankfully, the shock came only in the presentation, not the pick.

As he stood with a smile splashed across his face, Green reached for the Michigan hat on his right, but he never quite got it off the table. He smirked again. He lifted the Tennessee hat, cocked his head and put the hat back down. Then, he walked off the podium and flipped a switch on the wall beside him.

A projector screen behind the head table slowly lifted to reveal a No. 27 Michigan jersey. He shocked the world all right, but still, Green went Blue.

Recruiting is high drama. One piece — an elite running back — has eluded the Wolverines for years and years. And now that the piece is secured in place, with the crossing of the ‘t’s and dotting of the ‘i’s coming on National Signing Day on Wednesday, Michigan is really, actually, finally ready for the plunge back into pro-style, smash-mouth, beat-down football.

Saturdays no longer belong to No. 16, do they? Green proved that a week ago. After Green’s announcement created a mini-meltdown in Michigan spheres, some — though certainly not most — flipped over to NFL Network to watch Robinson’s career finale.

Robinson, the image of a bygone experimental phase for the Wolverines, didn’t seem himself at the Senior Bowl. He was lined up at slot receiver and at kick returner just a month after setting the NCAA’s all-time quarterback rushing record. He saw little action but performed admirably, catching both passes that came his way.

As Green’s commitment ushered a new era by bringing back a traditional offensive scheme, Robinson’s departure marked the farewell to an experiment that began the day Rich Rodriguez was hired as head coach in December 2007. Robinson was the piece for Rodriguez and the spread offense. More could hardly have been expected from Shoelace: three years as starting quarterback, a myriad of records shattered, starting for 7-6, 11-2 and 5-2 teams before injury felled him midway though his senior season.

Robinson won’t be replaced — he can’t be — but he doesn’t need to be. The experiment is over. As Robinson trains for the NFL and what should be a successful future, Michigan is steadily returning to its roots. ‘Team 134’ will have no Denard Robinson, no electrifying yet misplaced quarterback with a smile to brighten the largest stadium in America.

The focus effectively shifted at 4 o’clock on a Saturday.

Green and quarterback Devin Gardner will headline the Michigan backfield now. And regardless of the success they have, regardless of how long they stay on campus, that tandem will mark the true return of the pro-style offense to Michigan. Lloyd Carr and Gary Moeller and Bo Schembechler will watch from the suites or from the heavens and see a familiar offense on the field. They’ll see football they remember.

Though Robinson is gone — his shoestrings, highlight reels and dreadlocks trailing him out the door — old-school Michigan is back.

— Nesbitt can be reached at stnesbit@umich.edu or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.