The door swung open and Denard Robinson introduced himself, offered out his hand and sat down in a second-floor office inside Schembechler Hall. Robinson, 32, is dressed in all blue and working on a goatee, still rocking his vintage dreadlocks.
Memorabilia spanning yearbooks to bobbleheads are scattered around the room, homages to Michigan football’s lore. Robinson, of course, is an integral part of the program’s rich history. Bridging Rich Rodriguez to Brady Hoke, Robinson captivated the fanbase with his electric talent and ingrained the nickname “Shoelace” into the hearts of Wolverines across the globe.
From 2010-2012, Robinson’s name was synonymous with Michigan football.
His goal now, a decade later, is to pass that baton onto someone else.
“I want to get some guys that come up here and be one of those players for us, one of the guys that’s a face for the University of Michigan,” Robinson told The Daily. “When they think about Michigan, you think about that person.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had been in conversations with Robinson for a while – the pair initially connected at the beginning of last season, but Robinson wanted to finish the year in his previous role with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
They stayed in touch, and in February, Michigan afforded Robinson that opportunity, hiring him as its new assistant director of player personnel. At last, he returned home.
“I knew I always wanted to come back to Michigan and be a part of this program in some type of capacity,” Robinson said. “I was just excited to be a part of it.”
Robinson’s work involves three primary concentrations: watching film, scouring the transfer portal and hitting the recruiting trail. In each task, his goal is to find ways for Michigan to improve.
“It’s been surreal,” Robinson said, grinning.
Surreal for Robinson, sure, but also the high school players he recruits. Robinson estimates that 75% of high school players recognize him.
“It’s kind of fun to see,” Robinson said, smiling again. “The younger guys coming up that watched football when they were younger, it’s cool to see that those guys still remember me.”
One time, a player didn’t recognize Robinson for his on-field exploits. He did, though, realize that Robinson graces the cover of the video game NCAA 14. “Then he flipped out,” Robinson said, mimicking the player’s frenetic reaction.
“(Being on the cover) is just a dream come true for me,” Robinson remembered telling the player. “I didn’t even dream that far about being on the front cover of the college game, but it happened to me. So we’ll make it real that you can do it, too.”
It’s easy to see why Robinson can be an effective recruiter. Beyond the pedigree – an all-time great player who holds the NCAA record for most rushing yards by a quarterback, among other accolades – Robinson is charismatic and genuine. The role suits him.
For Robinson, it’s also invigorating.
“It’s based on potential,” Robinson said, explaining the process. “You can see it. It’s either good or bad. Sometimes you miss on a guy, sometimes you’re right on a guy. You’re trying to bat well. You want to be correct every time, but sometimes you’re gonna have failure. You just have to get back up and say, ‘Hey, I missed that one, onto the next.’ That’s how I look at it.”
Robinson is well-versed in the lesson that things don’t always go your way. In college, Robinson was so popular that professors asked him to stop showing up to class because his mere presence created a distraction. But post-graduation life humbled him.
During his senior year, he suffered an ulnar nerve injury that ended his career as a quarterback, forcing him to switch positions at the next level. Between injuries and ineffectiveness, he never panned out as a hybrid running back/wide receiver type.
Robinson’s fall from grace even prompted a Player’s Tribune story last year – penned by Robinson himself – titled, What Ever Happened to Denard Robinson?
This year, that question has an answer. Robinson is back at Michigan, and he has found his place.
Robinson always knew that he wanted to stay involved in football once his playing days were behind him. Jacksonville University first hired him as an offensive analyst and assistant special teams coordinator in 2019. After their program disbanded, Robinson joined the Jaguars in 2020 as an offensive quality control coach. The following year, he transitioned to the front office, assuming a role as a college scouting assistant, learning the ins-and-outs of player development.
Throughout it all, though, Michigan never lingered far from his mind. If his bye week aligned, he returned to Ann Arbor for a football game. If not, he watched every game from his home, alongside his five-year-old son, Denard Xavier Robinson Jr., a budding superfan himself.
This homecoming is exactly what Robinson envisioned – even if it doesn’t resemble his college days.
“Now, being on the other side of things, it’s kinda different,” Robinson said. “Being older and mature, you understand certain things and why they helped you develop.”
Robinson loves the program-wide passion and the fervent Michigan ties on the coaching staff. He loves watching junior running back Blake Corum decimate opposing defenses. He loves holding conversations with sophomore J.J. McCarthy, even when the quarterback of the present ribs the quarterback of the past:
“He’s like, ‘I’m gonna break some of your records’ and it’s like, ‘I want you to’,” Robinson laughed.
Smiling and laughing, Robinson remained upbeat throughout the interview. The conversation shifted, straying away from his current role and towards other matters, like the World Series, high school football and public speaking. But, before departing, Robinson circled back to one more thought.
“The bond that you have from being here is special,” he said. “… It’s cool to see. I can’t complain about it. I enjoy it, I embrace it and I love it.”