Someday soon, for one of the final times before they move onto the National Football League or whatever might lie beyond, former Michigan captains Denard Robinson and Jordan Kovacs will enjoy a steak dinner together. One will pay and one won’t.
The idea started in workouts with Michigan strength coach Aaron Wellman as each prepared for the NFL Draft and the slate of drills it entails. As Roy Roundtree explained, “During the shuttles last week, Denard was like ‘I’m gonna run faster than you.’ And Jordan was like, ‘Nah I’m gonna run faster than you.’ It was back and forth.”
Soon, the two decided to make a wager, settling on three exercises: the 20-yard shuttle, the 40-yard dash and the three-cone drill. Loser buys a dinner at The Chop House in downtown Ann Arbor.
It was one final piece of motivation for two ultra-competitive athletes. And it was a sign of solidarity for two players who each face an uncertain professional future, even if each has a different fight to get there.
Kovacs, the underdog again, must prove that he has the athleticism and ability to play at the next level. For Robinson, the question isn’t about talent, it’s about how he can use it, and at what position.
The end of Robinson’s Michigan career — really starting after the elbow injury in October that ended his time at quarterback — thrust his future into disorder. To the NFL, Robinson is a tempting yet unknown quantity, with potential at many positions but polish at none.
He has practiced mostly as a wide receiver, but he has also worked out as a returner and a running back and is even prepared to play cornerback if asked. Every team, it seemed, had different needs, and Robinson was forced to learn an array of different positions in a matter of weeks.
At first, the inexperience showed. During the Senior Bowl, Robinson struggled to field kicks in practice and dropped the only one he saw in the game. He managed to catch two passes but for just 22 yards, and he lacked precision in his routes.
“Obviously he had a tough Senior Bowl,” Kovacs said, before adding: “Just seeing how much work he’s put in, it’s unbelievable.”
Slowly, through multiple workouts daily with Wellman and more individual position work, Robinson started improving. Fielding punts came easier, a result of practicing daily for 30 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour, — “until the kicker’s leg gets tired,” Robinson said.
He refined his routes until they gained precision. At the beginning of the winter, despite Robinson’s athleticism, he often seemed awkward, like a prized racehorse suddenly expected to navigate a show jumping course. He thought too much. He counted his steps when he ran. He looked for the ball too soon, or waited until it was too late.
Now, “he don’t count his steps no more,” Roundtree said. “When he runs his routes, you can see that he’s getting in and out of his cuts, and he’s pretty confident in what he’s running. It shows the progress that he has made.”
By Thursday, Michigan’s Pro Day, when the team’s seniors would work out for professional scouts, he looked comfortable. Robinson had already recorded times in most major drills at the NFL Combine in February, with positive results. His 4.43 40-yard dash was among the fastest times at the Combine. He ran the 20-yard shuttle in 4.22 seconds and the three-cone drill in 7.09 seconds — setting a target for Kovacs to beat to win the steak.
Thursday, the focus for Robinson was on the position drills. This time, a confident glide replaced unsure strides. He didn’t drop a single pass, teammates reported, and he caught everything with his hands. Robinson was even perfect in the return drill.
It was all coming together. Then came a curveball. A few scouts approached Robinson and told him that in the preparation for running back and wide receiver and returner and cornerback, he had perhaps ruled out quarterback prematurely.
“They said, ‘Continue to throw the ball,’ ” Robinson said. “I said, ‘No problem.’ ”
Nearby, Kovacs faced scrutiny on a different part of his game. Robinson’s speed times were important, but everyone knew he was fast. Kovacs has the opposite problem. His instincts and on-field intelligence are an unquestioned strength, but does the former walk-on really have the explosiveness needed to cover NFL wideouts and tight ends?
For Kovacs, the winter entailed almost no positional work. Instead, Wellmen designed a program to boost his measurables, a heavy-weight, low-rep routine aimed to help Kovacs run 40 yards as fast as possible “and not die after,” as Kovacs put it.
Kovacs said the preparation wasn’t overwhelming because he had ostensibly been through the same process when he walked on to the Michigan team. But his low draft stock provided a familiar motivation.
“I just like to prove people wrong,” Kovacs said.
He had his chance on Thursday. He had three targets, set by Robinson at the Combine. Beating them would mean steak, and it would also go a long way to demonstrating he had the athleticism requisite for a professional. Three drills, three goals: a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash, a 4.22 shuttle and a 7.09 shuttle.
He said he felt faster and lighter than ever.
“It’s funny, you do 100 of these in the offseason,” Kovacs said. “You know, you do 100, and you only get one rep.”
That was all he needed. In the 40, Kovacs, unsurprisingly, couldn’t touch Robinson, but his 4.58-second time was respectable. Kovacs was disappointed in his shuttle time, but his 4.19 seconds was good enough to beat even Robinson.
But his three-cone drill was a statement. His time of 6.62 seconds didn’t just beat Robinson, it destroyed him. Kovacs beat every safety’s time from the Combine, and his time would’ve ranked him third overall.
Afterward, Kovacs shrugged off his performance’s significance, but he did concede that “Couldn’t have hurt” his draft stock. He laughed. “I think we can all agree on that.
“My whole mindset is, I just need to get my foot in the door,” Kovacs continued. “I’ve done it once, I did it here. Get my foot in the door, I’ll make the most of my opportunity.”
Tony Pauline of DraftInsider.net reported that the Patriots invited Kovacs to a private workout.
Kovacs’ performance was emphatic, it was perception changing — it was steak-worthy.
But that dinner will have to wait a little bit longer. For Kovacs and Robinson, there’s still work to do before the draft. There’s no room in the diet, even for steak, even to settle a score between friends.