NEW ORLEANS — As smoothly as he runs, junior quarterback Denard Robinson casually slipped Junior Hemingway’s nickname into a conversation with a reporter this week, as if no one would notice.
“I love seeing ‘Big Play’ Hemingway catch the ball,” Robinson said.
“I just mess with him,” Robinson said. “I mean, he’s a big-play guy anyway, so why not call him that?”
Hemingway, who sat a few feet away, has developed into the leader of Michigan’s dynamic and deep set of receivers. The fifth-year senior’s numbers aren’t overly impressive — 32 catches for 636 yards and two touchdowns — but he undoubtedly played a crucial role in a few of Michigan’s wins.
His 20-yards-per-catch average should be enough to warrant the nickname, but the timing of the catches — when the game was on the line or when Michigan most needed a big play — make him most deserving.
“I heard it after the Notre Dame game. No, it was the Northwestern game,” said Hemingway, who himself couldn’t keep track of all of the big plays. “I think that’s when it started to flood in.”
Whether it was after he made a jump-ball grab against Notre Dame or Northwestern (the plays were nearly identical), Robinson approached Hemingway to tell him about the nickname after the game.
“That’s what people are calling you, man: ‘Big Play’ Hemingway,” Robinson told him.
On Tuesday, under the bright Superdome lights, Hemingway will again be Robinson’s best option to check the blitz-happy Virginia Tech defense. When Michigan practiced there this week, Robinson lofted high passes to his receivers to help their adjustment to the bright lights of the Superdome.
Robinson called the Hokie defense “weird” based on how they align their cornerbacks and safeties. Oftentimes, Robinson said, the Virginia Tech defense disguises what coverages it’s in, which has him studying more. The challenge for Robinson and Hemingway will be simultaneously out-maneuvering and out-thinking the defense.
“My receivers do (look forward to the challenge),” Robinson said. “And I do too. These are great defensive backs.”
After years of producing NFL-caliber cornerbacks like DeAngleo Hall, Macho Harris and Brandon Flowers, the old and new secondary players started calling themselves “Defensive Back U,” following Penn State’s nickname “Linebacker U.” The next in line may be junior cornerback Jayron Hosley, who hails from Delray Beach, Fla., about 20 minutes from Robinson’s hometown in Deerfield Beach, Fla.
Hokies coach Frank Beamer is intrigued by the match-up between his cornerbacks and the Wolverines’ wide receivers. Hosley said he will likely be matched up with Hemingway, albeit not exclusively, during the game.
Hemingway versus Hosley — big-time playmaker against big-time playmaker.
Hosley said Hemingway reminds him of Virginia Tech receiver Jarrett Boykin, who’s also physical and strong.
Virginia Tech safety Eddie Whitley said he was given a scouting report on Hemingway from a friend, Notre Dame cornerback Robert Blanton. Blanton told him, “Their receivers have deceptive speed. They don’t look like they’re fast, but they can get down the field quick.
“Hemingway,” Blanton said, “he’s big, but he can move for his size.”
For the 5-foot-10, 171-pound Hosley, playing well in what he called “one of the biggest games of my career” could pay extra dividends.
The Sugar Bowl will be the final game in a Hokies uniform for Hosley — who has already told media members he plans on leaving early for the NFL — and his last chance to make an impression on pro scouts in a game situation. Before the season, his stock was sky-high, having picked off nine passes his sophomore season and being named a first-team All-American by the Walter Camp Football Foundation and Scout.com.
At that point, it seemed he was poised to continue Virginia Tech’s proud cornerback tradition, but he struggled this season, intercepting just three passes — perhaps being passed by versatile Kyle Fuller as the Hokies’ top cornerback.
“Since I didn’t have the big season everyone was expecting — nine picks (like 2010) and this and that — I mean, all I have to prove in this game is that I’m still that same player,” Hosley said. “Nothing’s changed.
“Passes weren’t coming my way. I had a couple injuries here and there that slowed me down, a hamstring, little minor things, but I’m not making excuses.”
He left the ACC Championship game with a concussion, but he has been practicing this week and said he’s 100-percent healthy. When he spoke to the media this week, he seemed determined and upbeat, convinced he can erase the poor opinions others have of his season.
While describing “Defensive Back U,” Hosley talked about the “swagger and arrogance” he wants to pass down to the younger cornerbacks. Continuing that legacy, he said, only happens by showing people “the plays you make and don’t make,” not by how you act.
“Your game says it all,” he said.
Facing “Big Play” Hemingway on Tuesday, Hosley hopes to set a good example while restoring his own reputation in the process.
“A couple of plays came my way (this season) that I didn’t make, but we’ve got one game left,” he said. “I’m going to leave it all on the field. This is the last game.
“Expect big things.”