The draft clock was ticking. It was fantasy football season, and I desperately needed another running back. Then I saw his name: Denard Robinson.
I remembered him as a Michigan quarterback, but now I was looking at him as an option for my backfield. Since I was going to make the trip to Ann Arbor for college in a month, I showed a little faith, clicked the flashing “draft player” icon and added him to my roster.
At Jim Harbaugh’s Ann Arbor Aerial Assault camp Saturday, it was clear that I wasn’t the only person who remembered Robinson and looked back on his four-year career behind center when he became one of the most-beloved Wolverines in history.
When Harbaugh split the quarterback pool into groups, the fans followed the one that Denard led to Al Glick Field House.
When there was a break in the action, fans whipped out the sharpies anxiously hoping for an opportunity to get his autograph.
When it was time to walk back to the stadium for lunch, the Michigan faithful held their phones at the ready, in anticipation of an opportunity to get a picture with the man they know as “Shoelace.” Never mind the dozens of other NFL and Michigan quarterbacks, it was Denard!
But in reality, his days of controlling the huddle are over. A lack of throwing prowess and abundance of running abilities made him an appealing choice for the Jacksonville Jaguars at running back — a whole new position. Thanks to his time under center in the maize and blue, however, that transition was easier than Robinson expected.
As the Jaguar speedster described, the key to his positional transition is that he learned to read defenses as a quarterback, giving him an upper hand at the highest level.
“Being able to see blitzes and stuff helped me more,” Robinson said. “As a quarterback you have to know where the blitz is coming from so you can turn the protection up. As a running back now, you look at it, I say ‘Here is a rotation from the safety, now if the safety tops the linebacker or nickel will.’
“Now you know he might be coming and I can see that. Little things like that help me as a running back, because as a quarterback you had to turn the protection that way or send different things to help.”
Though Robinson hasn’t put up eye-popping number thus far in his NFL career, his stats speak for the strides he is making to improve.
In 2013, his rookie season, Robinson was given just 20 running attempts, which yielded no touchdowns, three fumbles and 3.3 yards per carry.
But 2014 showed the impact that Robinson can have from his new position down the road.
The coaching staff entrusted Robinson with 135 running attempts, and he treated those carries with care — conceding just two fumbles. He increased his yards per carry to 4.3, while accumulating four touchdowns and 582 total yards.
Specifically, he became the first Jaguars running back to boast back-to-back 100-yard performances since Maurice Jones-Drew in 2011. Packaged into those performances was Robinson’s longest rush of the season — a 41-yard burst against Miami on a misdirection.
He showed glimpses of being a dual-threat as a receiver out of the backfield as well, tallying 23 receptions for 124 yards.
Robinson credited part of his fluid NFL transition to another former Michigan quarterback, Chad Henne. The two gear up next to each other before every game and share adjacent lockers, and Robinson said that has fostered a relationship in which he can easily get in contact with Henne.
One of Robinson’s biggest issue in the NFL has been acclimating to a situation in which he doesn’t serve as a dual threat as a scrambling quarterback, but that doesn’t stop him from continuing to embrace his love for the game.
“Now they’re (only) accounting for you as a runner. In college they didn’t account for me. Well, teams did after a while, after I made them pay,” Robinson said with a laugh. “Now they account for me as a runner, and they make sure they’ve got someone (to cover) you.
“For the most part, it’s still the same thing. Still playing football, still having fun and enjoying it. I mean it’s the biggest stage, so I just enjoy playing football, being in a team environment, all that stuff.”
Yesterday, Robinson was coaching campers through a drill aimed at hitting a receiver running a fade route to the corner of the end zone, and he gave his apprentices one rule: if you score a touchdown, give him a celebration to watch.
And while there’s no telling what’s in store for Robinson in the 2015 campaign, it’s obvious that he has embraced the challenge of succeeding at a position that is foreign to him at the most competitive level.
He’s a running back now. But with the calculated mind of a Michigan quarterback still active in the NFL, young campers may be sitting in front of their televisions this fall with Robinson giving them a celebration to watch instead.