JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Denard Robinson picked up speed, faked left, cut right, then burst between two defenders and into the clear. He was gone. His left shoe, however, was not.
Back in college this was a cool thing: seeing the Michigan quarterback known as "Shoelace," famous for not tying his shoes, fly down the field in a sock after running out of a cleat. But here in the NFL? Not so much.
One of the position coaches for his new team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, instructed Robinson to lace 'em up, which he immediately did, without a word of protest. Robinson knows things are different now that he's in the NFL; he understands that if he's going to make it here, he has to adapt. If that means lacing up his shoes, so be it.
And if that also means he's done playing quarterback, well, he's done playing quarterback.
For months now, Jaguars fans have waited and hoped (and even petitioned!) for the second coming of Tim Tebow, their favorite son. The answer to the Jaguars' prayers, however, may have arrived in the form of Robinson.
Like Tebow, Robinson grew up in Florida and went on to become the most electric quarterback in his school's history. Like Tebow, Robinson had a knack for winning games late, with the kind of clutch leadership only a charismatic quarterback can show. Like Tebow, Robinson overloaded defenses with his ability to do many different things depending on what he saw at the line of scrimmage. Robinson even has a deep sense of faith, which includes genuflecting on the field to show thanks.
But unlike Tebow, Robinson entered the NFL draft as a wide receiver, not a quarterback. And because of that, Robinson has a chance to give his new team exactly what a rebuilding franchise needs: a player who thinks like a quarterback but doesn't always line up there.
"Of course you miss it," Robinson says of his favorite position, "but it's still football."
First-year GM David Caldwell (who famously ruled out a trade for Tebow at his opening news conference) and new head coach Gus Bradley wanted to make the Jaguars faster. They did that right away with a version of the Three Amigos that Jags fans might grow to love: Robinson, former South Carolina standout Ace Sanders, and free agent Tobais Palmer, who was undrafted out of North Carolina State. All three are cat-quick, and all three will get a chance to return kicks for the Jaguars. Sanders is slotted as a punt returner, and Palmer and Robinson will share kick return duty.
Robinson is the wildcard, new to not only kick returns but receiving. He's only spent a few days on the field with his new teammates – rookie camp and OTAs – but it's hard to imagine him not getting regular touches in the Jags' offense. Top running back Maurice Jones-Drew is still getting back into shape after a knee injury – he's running three-quarters speed right now – top receiving threat Justin Blackmon is suspended four games for a violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy, and quarterback Blaine Gabbert is a still-unproven leader behind a young offensive line. Translation: The offense needs a spark without a total overhaul.
"It's only the second day, but you see some of the explosiveness,” offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said Monday. "You see great speed. He caught the ball well. We're getting a better feel for what he does best."
And what he does best – better even on his worst day than Tebow on his best – is run fast.
The transition won't be easy. Robinson has been a quarterback all his life and was forced to leave the position because of nerve damage in his throwing arm – "I don't know," he said when asked when his arm would be healthy – but there's not much time for a learning curve. Workouts with the Jags have already been like a fire drill, with Robinson showing up to practice without much of a clue as to which plays he'll be running.
"They'll tell me, 'Hey, watch out for this play," Robinson said Monday after practice. And then, moments later, he'll be running it. "I'm excited about it," he says. "Just follow the blocks and get downfield."
On a couple of occasions Monday, he scooted through multiple layers of defense (though nobody is tackling at this early stage) and heard the whoops and yells of supportive teammates and coaches. It's easy to see him as a fail-safe for Gabbert when the Jags need a few crucial yards or when Jones-Drew needs a breather.
That's if he can stay healthy.
Robinson was hit in college, but not like he'll be lit up at the next level – especially on kick returns. The one thing people still seem to overlook about Tebow is his incredible ability to take and give a big hit. It's unclear if Robinson can hold up in the NFL, considering he was dinged up somewhat often in college.
In terms of sheer skill, though, Jones-Drew has been impressed already. "The way he's been able to adapt," Jones-Drew says, "the way he cuts, and his reads, seem natural."
That ability to adapt has served Robinson well for years. He played a few snaps at wideout during his first season at Michigan, then won the starting quarterback job and treated the scoreboard like a pinball machine. (He scored a touchdown on his first play from scrimmage.) Then out went Rich Rodriguez and in came Brady Hoke, who never used Robinson as cleverly as "Coach Rod" did. Robinson went along with it, never complained, won a Sugar Bowl playing QB, moved to tailback after his arm injury, and now here he is in the NFL.
Robinson may have lost his number (16; he's now 29), his position, and now his trademark shoelace look (at least for one practice), but there's plenty of him left, starting with that intangible "winner" quality all the pundits seem to ridicule in Tebow.
"He's a natural quarterback type," says second-overall draft pick Luke Joeckel, who is also Robinson’s rookie camp roommate. "He's about the team, he's a good leader, and he treats the offensive linemen with respect. He's friends with everyone."
That's a perfect fit in Jacksonville: a quarterback without the expectations, and a showman without the circus.
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