Michigan's Robinson can count Obama among his fans
By LARRY LAGE
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Denard Robinson was known by a relative few outside of Florida when he arrived in Ann Arbor three years ago.
Now, it would be difficult to find a sports fan who doesn't recognize Michigan's star quarterback, and many - including President Barack Obama and LeBron James - count themselves as fans of the electric athlete with an infectious smile, flowing dreadlocks and untied cleats.
And now, Shoelace is a senior.
The Wolverines are ranked No. 8 in The Associated Press' preseason college football poll.
Robinson has captivated the masses as one of college football's most exciting players for three years now, using sprinter's speed and running back-like vision to break records and rivet viewers. Along the way, he has gotten more comfortable as a leader.
Robinson spoke on behalf of Big Ten players at the conference's kickoff luncheon this summer, and he cracked at least one joke at Michigan's media day when comparing his speed to the fastest person on the planet.
"I think I'd get Usain Bolt in a 40-yard dash," Robinson said with a grin. "I watched his start. I think I'd get him."
Obama gave Robinson a shout-out from in front of a crowd last winter when he visited Ann Arbor and granted him a one-on-one audience for a couple minutes.
"I talked to him and got a picture with him," Robinson recalled. "He told me that we should be a team to be reckoned with we've got to make the most of it."
Robinson didn't, or didn't want to, understand, why so many people wanted to talk to him two years ago as a sophomore when he became the first NCAA player to pass for 2,500 yards and run for 1,500 in a season. He said back then that he didn't have cable, making it easy to avoid watching highlights of himself on ESPN, and shunned social networking for a while. Eventually, Robinson joined his teammates on Twitter and learned a lesson when someone else posted messages.
"Even when my Twitter account was hacked - front-page news - I turned it into a positive," he said.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke has stressed the importance of Robinson becoming more of a leader on and off the field, when no one is watching and in front of reporters.
A bit reluctantly, Robinson has done it.
"I get a little comfortable with it, but still I would rather be behind the scenes and be with my teammates," he said. "I would personally rather just be hanging out with the fellas."
Robinson regards himself as just one of the guys, not a big man on campus, keeping the humble ways he had growing up with six brothers and one sister in Deerfield Beach, Fla.
"He doesn't ever big-time anybody," teammate Taylor Lewan said. "He's really become a huge leader with his words and actions. Every time I come in, he's here working on his steps and timing with the receivers. If he's not doing that, he's watching film. If he's not doing that, he's encouraging teammates to do the right thing."
Robinson has made two big decisions the past two offseasons and both have benefited college football's winningest program.
He turned down opportunities to transfer two years ago when Rich Rodriguez, whose personality and spread offense drew Robinson to Michigan, was fired. Last winter, he chose to stay in school so he could become the first in his family to graduate from college and to improve his chances of being a quarterback in the NFL.
Robinson dodges any questions about what he calls, "the next level." He is focusing on getting himself and his teammates ready for opening the season Sept. 1 in Cowboys Stadium against defending national champion Alabama. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban has tried to deflect questions about the Wolverines, saying it's too early to talk about them - but did acknowledge their quarterback is something special.
"Denard Robinson is one of the most explosive players in college football," Saban said. "Their offense really is geared to his talent, his ability. It's going to be very challenging for us when we start getting ready to play Michigan to be able to come up with a system and a scheme and enough discipline for our guys to play things the way they need to play them to contain this player."
Good teams, though, have figured out a way to slow down Robinson by forcing him to rely on his inconsistent arm and surrounding him well enough to limit big plays with his feet.
Robinson has thrown almost as many interceptions (eight) as touchdowns (10) in eight losses the past two years. In the team's two setbacks last season, to Michigan State and Iowa, he ran for fewer than 100 yards combined on 30 carries in those games.
Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges has tried to get Robinson to "calm down his feet" in the pocket, to avoid throwing off his back foot and to settle for routine plays instead of trying to score on every pass or run. Going under center regularly for a second straight year, after being in the shotgun in Rodriguez's offense, and getting another year to learn what Borges wants him to do in his hybrid of a pro-style offense and a spread has helped.
"Year Two in the offense, I'm making some growth and I'm trying to get better every day," Robinson said. "I always feel like I have room to improve."
Follow Larry Lage on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/larrylage
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this report.
Updated August 18, 2012