In four years as Michigan's quarterback, Denard Robinson created enough video game-style plays to apparently make such concepts a reality. Robinson, who was streaky as a passer but set an FBS record with 4,495 career rushing yards for a quarterback, won the vote to make the cover of EA Sports' NCAA Football '14 video game, just in time for his NFL transition.
"It's an honor to be on the cover, and I want to thank all the fans who voted," Robinson told me on Monday, the same day that he was taking the cover pictures. "I think it will be one of the best games to come out, because they've added a lot of updates. I'm a gamer -- I'm not just biased because I'm on the cover. I always play as Michigan, and I'm pretty good at it."
Of course, Robinson couldn't play as himself -- the NCAA game doesn't use the likenesses of actual players, because the age-old question of payment to players would be raised. The ongoing player likeness lawsuit, unquestionably related to this issue, has those remaining supporters of the wildly outdated "amateurism" concept more nervous than ever. EA Sports did not comment when asked if cover stars received income for the use of their image and name.
Robinson beat out Texas A&M receiver Ryan Swope in the cover voting finals, which presents an interesting dichotomy between college success and professional prospects -- neither Robinson nor Swope will be selected on the first day of the draft. Robinson, in particular, is undergoing an interesting transition from college quarterback to potential NFL jack-of-all-trades. He hopes to develop a future as a do-it-all space player in the mold of Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb.
As Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup wrote in a recent article for Shutdown Corner, the NFL and Robinson's style of play are on a collision course.
One tactic that I repeatedly see in college with both the quarterback under center and in the shotgun is a player from outside the formation, usually from a wide receiver position, motioning into the backfield with speed. That places a tremendous pre-snap burden on the defense ... It’s a means of expanding the field, utilizing more space and forcing the defense to defend more area.
There's no doubt that the NFL is more open and receptive to these types of players; Robinson's challenge is to become a receiver when he never was one before. His attempts to show out at that new position during Senior Bowl week were tentative at best -- while he showed the demon speed for which he is renowned, Robinson wasn't exact on routes and had issues catching the ball consistently. A lingering hand injury exacerbated the debits of inexperience, but it was hard to go away from Mobile thinking that this was a future star in that role.
A month later, we saw the merits of directed effort when Robinson hit the field at Lucas Oil Stadium for combine drills, and looked like a completely different player -- or, to be more exact, an actual receiver. As Robinson told me, there's only one way to make that leap -- reps. In Robinson's case, he did so with the help of former Carolina Panthers receivers coach Richard Williamson.
"I continue to work with him, and I think I'm getting better every time I step on the field," Robinson said. "And that's one of the things I'd always thought -- prior to the Senior Bowl, I'd never played receiver, and I just went out there and tried to play it. I did have a limiting injury, but when I got to Lucas Oil Stadium, it was better. I just kept putting the time in, and working with dedication, and that's why I had success. And when I went to my pro day, I had success because I knew I'd put the time in, and I knew what I was working for."
When I asked Robinson about his desire to be a moveable chess piece at the NFL level, lining up everywhere from wideout to slot to tailback to quarterback, he was one step ahead of the concept.
"Like you just said -- those guys you just named, that was perfect. Those are the guys I want to be in the group with. They've had success, and I want to be put in the same category."
Robinson does have a bit of a headstart on that idea. He ran a lot of zone option under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke for the Wolverines, and in the 2012 season, there were games in which he logged nearly equal reps at quarterback, running back, and receiver. Now, with guys like Cobb and Harvin redefining versatility in the pros, Robinson has a more exact paradigm with which to work.
"When you start putting the time and doing it more and more, that's what happened," he said of his progression as a skill player. "Everything happened with time, and I think that whenever you put in that kind of time, you should be getting better. If you're not, you're doing something wrong. I just kept learning it and learning it, and it started becoming muscle memory."
Now, it's about understanding route concepts, and always knowing his role and value in multiple spots and slots.
"Just taking no steps back. Taking no false steps, and doing the little things to get better. I'm very detail-oriented, and I want people to know that I can get on the board and [draw up routes.] Just doing the little things right."
Another aspect of the NFL game that bodes well for Robinson's future in it is the league's desperate need to catch up to the few teams able to run read option, zone option, and Pistol concepts consistently. In the ultimate copycat league, teams looking for their own RG3 or Russell Wilson will certainly cast at least one eye Robinson's way. He knows that he won't be considered a pure quarterback in a draft prospect sense, but Robinson also knows what time it is with his quarterback skill set.
"A dual threat. I can throw the ball and run the ball. I can do multiple things -- one of those guys who can do different things behind the line. People think you're going to take off with the ball, you read the defense downfield and throw it [instead]. There are a lot of things to do as a quarterback -- move around in the pocket and actually make plays with your feet."
Teams have talked to Robinson about multiple roles -- running back, receiver, returner, "Wildcat guy." He's most certainly in the early stages of that transition, but he's certainly hitting the big time at the right time. The rest is up to him.
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