In late May, Desmond Howard found himself in some hot water after calling out Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson when speaking of the entitlement of modern-day athletes.
“I’ll give you a perfect example,” Howard said at the Black Coaches and Administrators convention in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Michigan fires coach Rich Rodriguez. All the noise in Ann Arbor is, ‘Is Denard Robinson going to stay or leave?’ I’m like, ‘Hey, if the kid wants to go, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’ You looked fantastic for five games against nobody. That’s what you did.
“I’m not going to deny his talents, but you ain’t won nothing in Ann Arbor, son! Not so much we need to worry about if you’re going to be here next year or not.”
But in a conference call with reporters on Thursday regarding his College Football Hall of Fame induction, Howard was clear that there’s no bad blood between the duo of past and present Wolverines.
There were worries that Robinson would transfer after Rodriguez was relieved of his post in early January — sending Michigan’s highlight reel out the door with Rodriguez’s spread offense — but Robinson ultimately made the decision to remain in Ann Arbor to quarterback the Wolverines.
Even with a new offensive system in place under new Michigan coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges, Howard thinks Robinson will adjust well.
“I have the utmost confidence that Denard is going to do well in this offense, because I have confidence in Denard as a serious athlete and coach Borges as an offensive coordinator who knows how to use the strength of his players,” Howard said. “I spoke with Denard during spring football, and I think the most complicated part for a quarterback like Denard is to get the footwork down.”
The speedy Robinson ran for 1,702 yards in his breakout 2010 season under Rodriguez and passed for another 2,750 yards, throwing for 18 touchdowns and scrambling for another 14 scores.
“Anyone who knows Denard knows he can throw the ball,” Howard said. “What happens is, a lot of people, especially in the media, get so wowed by his speed … but there’s much more to him … He’s very serious about becoming a pro-style quarterback.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, that kid can spit the rock, he can spit the pill. Just gotta give him the opportunity to. But, for me, it starts with the footwork.”
While that footwork will be paramount for the junior quarterback, he can always ad lib that footwork and tear out of the pocket to pick up yardage on the run.
“Obviously they’re going to have to work in some other packages to utilize the things that give defensive coordinators nightmares, which is Denard with a ball in his hands running,” Howard said.
Howard said his first experience meeting Robinson was at the 2009 Michigan football Spring Game, when early-enrollee quarterback Tate Forcier put on the pads for the first time and Robinson looked on from the sidelines.
Robinson showed his high school status as he strode the sideline with a red and yellow varsity jacket from Deerfield Beach High School.
But his trip home is where he made his mark with a Michigan legend.
Howard walked through Detroit Metro Airport awaiting his flight to Miami and realized that Robinson was set to climb aboard the same flight home to Florida.
“Denard could’ve been a guy who ran a 5.1 40(-meter split), I didn’t know anything about this kid,” Howard recalls. “We just sat in the airport and talked. That’s when I realized what type of kid he was — he was really humble, really nice … His smile, the way he handled himself, the way he interacted with me … he’s the type of kid who you want to see do well.
“Since then, everyone’s called us twins.”
The brilliant smile and blazing speed match. But Denard doesn’t have a Heisman Trophy in his hands — not yet, at least.
TURNING OF THE TIDES: Howard, a Cleveland native, knows the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry as well as anybody. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they recruited Howard during a coaching change in Columbus, and the fear of a rocky transition steered him north.
Howard planned to make an unofficial visit to new Ohio State head coach John Cooper, but something about Michigan kept him away.
“I never did (make that visit),” Howard said. “The first time I set foot on Ohio State’s campus, (I) was wearing the maize and blue uniform.”
Howard never lost to the Buckeyes as a Wolverine. Even though Michigan has lost every matchup with Ohio State since 2004 — aside from the vacated 2010 game — Howard says the momentum is swinging back toward Michigan.
“These things are cyclical,” Howard said. “There are peaks and valleys (in the rivalry), and I think we’re pretty much coming out of the dark ages of Michigan football from what we experienced the last three seasons.
“Ohio State, with some turmoil down there, they still have real good athletes. They’re not to be taken lightly despite whatever is happening down there on that campus. But when we see the recruits now who are jumping from Ohio and coming to Ann Arbor, I think it speaks volumes of the shift that’s going on.”