NEW ORLEANS — Denard Robinson has a shtick he plays out with his center, Dave Molk. This week, as the two prepared for the Sugar Bowl, they made their rounds, meeting with the media and making appearances that may have seemed uncomfortable for the soft-spoken Robinson or ornery Molk.

At a hospital visit, Molk spied a line of aiming cameras, and playfully pushed Robinson towards them. Hey, Denard wants his picture taken! You all want Denard’s autograph, right?

Robinson bashfully laughs it off, then jokes that Molk — perhaps the Michigan player who most despises public appearances — is who they should heap the attention on.

As the week unfolded, it was clear that Robinson’s fame followed him to New Orleans. It was common to see him juking bystanders on the street, racing to get back to his group, having stopped to take so many photos with fans. Some players were brave enough to wear their gray Michigan jumpsuits. Had Robinson not worn casual clothes, he may have grown claustrophobic.

It took some getting used to. At first, he was only recognized around his small hometown of Deerfield Beach, Fla.

Now, the world is watching him, and him alone, no matter where the team goes.

“Denard has rock star status everywhere,” Molk said. “If he went to the grocery store, he’d had rock star status. I mean, he’s just stuck because of who he is and all that kind of stuff.

“It’s hard for him. I remember him telling me one time, when he orders a pizza he can’t give his name because then he’d have three guys show up at the door trying to talk to him.”

Instead of passing his fans with a simple nod, Robinson takes the time other stars wouldn’t.

“I speak to everybody,” he said. “I mean, I enjoy people. The one thing about me, I love being around people and love talking to people. I just have fun with it.”

One fan down in New Orleans called him “Bernard,” which made the quarterback laugh. Countless others will leave with a brief personal memory with him that they’ll cherish.

It should come at no surprise that Robinson is the most recognizable star amongst both the Michigan and Virginia Tech teams. Human nature says we’re captivated by phenomena we can’t explain. Try comprehending how Robinson, who’s always the fastest player on the field, can shake a defender in a phone booth then shoot himself out of a rocket.

But how he handles the attention, with a smile, is what’s worth discussing, because Robinson is already becoming the ideal face of Michigan football.

A coach’s dream, he is known around the program as humble and selfless. How he portrays himself in the media is who he is. The smile isn’t a show.

Before Lloyd Carr, the patriarch of the Michigan football family, first met Robinson, the former coach was briefed by Sheri Acho, formerly the academic support director. She told Carr, “You’re going to love this kid, because he’s really a dynamite person.”

They talked for half-an-hour.

“I came away feeling she was exactly right,” Carr said. “He’s an impressive guy.”

Around the team, he’s even better. It’s understood he’s the best recruiter, the go-to guy for hosting players on visits. His teammates respect him, and players older than Robinson say they look up to him.

When Robinson’s asked about his own success, he credits others almost too much — this week he said he throws to the best receiving corps in the country. He’s his own biggest critic, always beating himself up, his teammates say. It’s how he smiles through those dark moments — like the interceptions and injuries — that impresses Carr.

“I think he’s just been a sensational representative of Michigan football,” Carr said. “He’s handled the good and the bad.

“And when things didn’t go well, he handled it extremely well. Which, to me, is really an important sign. Because that shows maturity. He has been extremely impressive.”

Off the field, his personality fit the part. The next step was becoming a better leader on it — something Robinson says is a work in progress, as is becoming a better passer. Molk and senior captain Kevin Koger told him he had to be more vocal this season. Robinson couldn’t just lead by example as the quarterback.

Next year, there won’t be many older players to guide him. Though he submitted his name to the NFL Draft Advisory Committee to gauge his stock, earlier this week Robinson said he expects to be back for his senior year. In his second season in Al Borges’ system, expectations will be high. He’ll have 12 or 13 games to prove he’s an NFL-caliber quarterback while leading the team through a road-heavy schedule.

If there was a way to test Robinson’s patience and true resolve, the 2012 season will be as good as any. Don’t count on Robinson changing, win or lose.

“I just know him from seeing him on TV and that brief conversation I’ve had with him,” Carr said. “But what I really appreciate about him is he has reason to be really proud and confident, but he’s not arrogant.

“He has a humility about him that I really admire.”

—Rohan can be reached at trohan@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.