ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Every day, Denard Robinson is reminded of just how big a deal he is at the University of Michigan.
For starters, a life-sized mannequin wearing Robinson's No. 16 jersey sits in the lobby of Schembechler Hall, the Wolverines' football headquarters; Robinson, nicknamed Shoelace, untied the cleats for authenticity. That same No. 16 jersey sits in storefront windows throughout town. Fellow students, meanwhile, often stop Robinson on his way to class for autographs and pictures, and a local comedian recently produced a music video entitled "I Love You Denard."
The hoopla used to make the quiet kid from a rough neighborhood in Deerfield Beach, Fla., a bit skittish.
"I come from a small city where everyone knows everybody, but they don't treat anybody differently," Robinson said. "[Starting] my sophomore year, everyone praised me, they felt like I was a star or something, but to me, I'm just another student on the campus."
Finally this offseason, the reserved star decided to let down his guard, asking to deliver the keynote speech at July's Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon in Chicago. He spoke of losing his 11-year-old brother, Timothy, when he was 10; of being so self-conscious about where he lived that he was embarrassed to host college recruiters; of growing up among peers who commonly quit school and veered into drugs and street life.
"I wasn't even the best athlete in my neighborhood," Robinson told a packed ballroom. "I happened to be one of the ones that made it out."
Previously, Robinson didn't feel comfortable sharing much publicly. Entering his final college season, the kid with the toothy smile and the trademark braids felt compelled to share his story in hopes of helping youngsters in similarly challenging situations today.
"I was always the underdog," said Robinson. "I like being the underdog."
Robinson and his eighth-ranked Wolverines will be heavy underdogs Saturday in Dallas when they take on defending national champion Alabama. Despite ranking among the top five candidates in most preseason Heisman polls, despite Nick Saban calling Robinson "as significant a player as we've played against since Cam Newton," the general feeling nationally is that the Crimson Tide's massive, swarming defenders might pulverize the 6-foot, 197-pound quarterback. It speaks to the unusual dichotomy surrounding the electrifying runner but thus-far erratic passer: He's simultaneously fawned over in Ann Arbor and frequently panned by fans and football analysts elsewhere.
In hindsight Robinson set the bar too high when, in his first two starts as a sophomore in 2010, he rushed for 197 yards against Connecticut, breaking the school record for a quarterback, then immediately shattered that mark the next week with 258 rushing yards and 502 yards of total offense against Notre Dame.
"I didn't even know that was happening [during the game]," Robinson said. "I looked at the stats [afterward] and was like, that really just happened? It was ridiculous."
Everything that followed was bound to seem underwhelming in comparison -- especially when the Wolverines lost six of their last eight that season, resulting in coach Rich Rodriguez's dismissal -- though Robinson finished the year with an NCAA-quarterback-record 1,702 rushing yards and was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
Then coach Brady Hoke arrived last season intent on installing a pro-style passing scheme and reducing Robinson's workload as a ball carrier. Michigan won 11 games and reached its first BCS bowl in five years, with Robinson throwing two touchdowns in the final 72 seconds to stun Notre Dame early in the season and notching five touchdowns in the Wolverines' first victory in eight years over Ohio State. He still rushed 221 times for 1,176 yards and 16 touchdowns to pull within reach of the NCAA's career rushing record for a quarterback (he'll need another 1,252 yards), but his completion percentage sank from 62.5 to 55.0, and his interceptions rose from 11 to 15. There were no repeat All-America or Big Ten awards.
On any given play, Robinson can take off running and take viewers' breath away. And any time he drops back to pass, viewers are left holding their breath.
Robinson and offensive coordinator Al Borges spent the offseason working to turn Robinson into a more complete quarterback. Borges, who's spent his career working primarily with traditional drop-back quarterbacks (UCLA's Cade McNown, Auburn's Jason Campbell, San Diego State's Ryan Lindley), insists his latest pupil can still become a consistent passer. "Arm strength's not an issue with Denard Robinson," said Borges, who's emphasized better footwork (Robinson has been prone to throw off his back foot) and understanding of reads and progressions.
"All of those things have improved drastically in practice," said Borges, "but we don't hit Denard in practice. We have to see these first few games whether they take. I think they will. In most instances second-year quarterbacks in our system have made a nice improvement. He's worked really hard at it."
Meanwhile, beginning in spring practices, Robinson evolved into a more vocal leader. Even as a third-year starter, there was a time when teammates could barely hear him in the huddle. Now, "When he walks on the field in between the white lines, he commands an unbelievable amount of respect," said Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan. "He takes control in the huddle. He didn't always do that in the past."
The senior's confidence has grown for a number of reasons. Start with last year's season-ending four-game win streak, which was highlighted by a 45-17 rout of Nebraska, a 40-34 win over the Buckeyes (in which Robinson ran for 170 yards and two touchdowns while also completing 14-of-17 passes for three touchdowns and no picks) and the overtime Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.
"You look at two big games at the end of the year against Nebraska and Ohio, he really played his best," said Hoke. "His decisiveness throwing the ball, his decisiveness whether to tuck and run it -- that has to give him a little more confidence."
Meanwhile, Robinson learned over the offseason that his popularity extends well beyond Michigan's campus. "I met the President of the United States and I met LeBron James -- and they both knew who I was," Robinson said to a round of chuckles during the Chicago speech. Visibly nervous at first, Robinson spent weeks writing, revising and practicing those remarks. A month earlier, the New York City Department of Education invited Robinson to speak at a citywide middle school graduation event for minority youth.
"I know I'm a role model, because that was me," said Robinson. "I wanted to be like Michael Vick, I wanted to be like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady. That's who you look up to, that was your role model, and now that I have the opportunity to be a role model, I take advantage of it."
There were few local role models for Robinson growing up in Deerfield Beach, where temptations to veer in the wrong direction present themselves daily.
"Thank god he had great parents," said Art Taylor, Robinson's coach at Deerfield High before moving to Cooper City. "It's tough when you see kids your age making $100 a day or week selling drugs, skipping class to get high -- he lived in that type of community. What a great job he did. He woke up early."
Lewan marvels at how Robinson remains "the same humble, fun-loving guy" even though "I block for him in practice, and sometimes I have to block for him walking to class."
Asked about the autograph hounds, Robinson gets momentarily embarrassed before flashing that familiar sly smile.
"This one person said to me, 'Sometimes I get jealous because you have a lot of people come up to you,'" Robinson said. "I just enjoy meeting new people, and I enjoy making someone else's day. That's my goal: To make someone's day, every day."
Robinson will make a whole lot of Michigan fans' day -- and possibly their year -- if he can pull of the upset of an SEC power Saturday night.