High on ability, low on reps, Robinson transitioning to receiver
MOBILE, Ala. -- Denard Robinson seemed more relaxed at Wednesday's Senior Bowl practice as he wore the same white jersey as his fellow receivers rather than the same yellow jersey as his fellow quarterbacks. After two days spent nursing an injured elbow and dressing like a Tour de France stage winner, the former Michigan star was cleared to play at full speed as he tries to transition from dual-threat quarterback in college to deep-threat receiver in the NFL.
On Wednesday, Robinson finally got to show NFL scouts what happens when he gets the ball in his hands. As anyone who followed the Wolverines the past few years will attest, that's usually quite a show. For Robinson, the challenge the next few months will be to prove to NFL scouts and coaches that he can get his hands on the ball. That isn't as easy as it looks -- even for an athlete of Robinson's caliber. "We can't take our athleticism for granted. They've still got to see the catch, see the tuck," said Oakland Raiders receivers coach Ted Gilmore, who is working with the North team's receivers this week. "The balls he drops are because he's not watching it all in. He's looking to try to do something. We all know what he can do with it once he's got it in his hands."
Monday and Tuesday were especially frustrating for Robinson. He couldn't participate in full-team drills, and the individual drills only served to highlight how little experience he has as a receiver. When Oregon State's Markus Wheaton -- who has played receiver his entire career -- ran a 12-yard out, everything looked smooth. He came out of his break at full speed and snared the ball like a human bear trap. A rep later, Robinson would run the same route. While this may seem unbelievable to anyone who has watched Robinson play, he looked slow and tentative by comparison.
Robinson isn't slow, of course. The difference is that Wheaton has spent thousands of hours learning to run precise routes. He knows exactly where to plant his foot on a dig, knows exactly how skinny to make a skinny post. All that training has created an instinct to, at the last moment, surge back toward the line of scrimmage and grab the ball so the defender -- either real or imaginary -- doesn't grab it first. When Robinson talks to former Michigan teammate Roy Roundtree, the recipient of some of Robinson's best throws, Roundtree always reminds Robinson to attack the football as if someone is trying to tear it away from him.
After getting loose a few times Wednesday, Robinson seemed less stressed than he did after struggling through drills his first few days. But he knows he has a lot to learn between now and his first NFL camp. "I've still got things to work on," Robinson said. "I've got to make sure I go get the ball when the ball comes my way."
Gilmore said Robinson has some tangible and intangible qualities that should allow him to make up ground quickly. "The language I'm talking right now to him is foreign," Gilmore said. "It's Chinese. But the one thing I appreciate, he's asking questions." On Monday and Tuesday, Robinson stuck close to Gilmore when he wasn't taking reps. When Robinson saw something he either didn't understand or wanted to clarify, he asked Gilmore. "He's very coachable," Gilmore said. "He's a very humble kid. He asks some great questions. Not good questions. Great questions." That willingness to learn combined with Robinson's superior athleticism should help him close the gap with more experienced receivers. "Because of the athleticism he possesses, it will be a shorter learning curve than most," Gilmore said. "Once again, the God-given ability will take over. He's just got to get the reps."
Robinson now calls the elbow injury he suffered at Nebraska on Oct. 20 "a blessing." The injury forced Robinson out of the quarterback spot for Michigan's final five games, but it also forced Robinson to face the reality that NFL teams would not want him as a quarterback. "It kind of made me open my eyes," Robinson said. While Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III have proven quarterbacks raised in a zone read-based offense can thrive in the NFL, Robinson can't match any of those three as a passer. But he can run fast and make defenders miss, so there is a place for him in the NFL.
Robinson and his advisors have selected receiver, the position at which Kentucky's Randall Cobb and Indiana's Antwaan Randle El -- two ex-quarterbacks -- have thrived in the NFL. (Cobb also played some receiver at Kentucky.) But a wise deployment for Robinson might be more similar to the way the Vikings use Percy Harvin. Harvin can line up as a receiver, but he can also line up in the backfield. (He did this at Florida as well.) Robinson, whose elusiveness is similar to Harvin's, would work well in that role.
When Michigan coaches finally had a chance to take a step back and draw up a true gameplan that used Robinson in a role other than quarterback, Robinson played well against an excellent South Carolina defense in the Outback Bowl. Playing a Swiss Army knife position, Robinson rushed for 100 yards in Michigan's narrow loss. Video of that game should provide valuable intelligence for NFL scouts wondering how Robinson could adjust to a new position. If he can hold his own against one of the nation's most athletic defenses after only a month away from quarterback, imagine what he'll be able to do when he's been playing for two years at the same position.
"Everybody sees something different," Gilmore said, pointing at the stands where hundreds of NFL scouts and coaches sat. "You've got all these people in the stands, and everybody sees something different." The question with Robinson is do they see the inexperienced receiver struggling to find his way, or do they imagine the possibilities?
We'll find out during the draft.