I was in Michigan Stadium for opening day 2009 against Western Michigan. After a completely demoralizing 3-9 in Rich Rodriguez' first season, Tate Forcier had already, on Michigan's first possession, shown the fans what the spread 'n' shred could do. It was quick, it was scary...it worked on the ground and through the air. During that possession, Forcier faked a give, rolled left, and, improvising, waved his receiver up the sideline and hit him on the numbers. "That," I said to anyone around who would listen, "is what a spread can do with a guy that can run it."
Sometime in the second quarter, Forcier came out with Michigan somewhere around the WMU, and in came a skinny kid with dreadlocks. The scuttlebutt was that the kid, while raw, could fly, and it didn't take long to show it off. Shotgun snap, a self-recovered fumble, and he was in the end zone, and it really seemed that quick. Later that season, my friend Chip would make fun of me for saying that Denard Robinson had "electrifying" speed, and you couldn't really blame him; he was obviously very fast, but he was so raw, and struggled so much with the offense and basic reads in the running game, that he never got in the open field enough to really see it. There were flashes - with Forcier injured (or was he ineffective?) against Iowa, Denard nearly pulled it out before throwing a killer interception during a last-ditch drive late. He was clearly #2, though.
The next season - Rodriguez' third - Robinson played well in the spring game, and it was hard to not wonder if he might be turning the corner. He was - his coming out party was a 200/200 game against Notre Dame. His reads had improved, and once defenses realized that they had to commit a safety to stop him, Michigan also had wideouts open all over the field. His occasional lack of accuracy didn't hurt when his guy had ten yards on anyone on the field. He ran, he passed, he was electrifying.
The best part? He seemed to be a genuinely nice kid; always smiling, never a single whiff of trouble, an enthusiastic teammate. He, famously, showed up for basketball games and jumped in to the student section with both feet. Wore the "Maize Rage" T, did the ridiculous arm waving, and smiled and smiled and smiled. He was a poor African-American kid from semi-rural Florida, and he went to HOCKEY GAMES. Seriously, he was impossible not to love.
The partnership with Rodriguez seemed a perfect marriage of system and player. Rodriguez offense never, EVER just ran a play - it was constantly poking at the defense for weaknesses or, for that matter, strengths that could be exploited. Keep your end inside to hawk Denard? Fine - hand it off to Brandon Minor inside and take the DE out of the play. Crash your OLB inside to cut off Minor? Okay, here's an inverted veer, and you're dead. It was a thing of beauty, and Denard was a perfect trigger. But Rodriguez had no idea how to hire a defensive coordinator, and he had to go.
Enter Brady Hoke, and enter Al Borges. Hoke would never run a spread, but maybe...well, Borges was OC for Jason Campbell, right? And he was a black guy who could run a little bit, right? Maybe it will work out.
It didn't. Borges (and probably Hoke) could never stop themselves from putting Denard Robinson under center and having him TURN HIS BACK ON THE DEFENSE. They had one of the best runners the school has ever produced, and they had him running backwards two steps to hand off to...who? To Thomas Rawls. To Stephen Hopkins. To Vincent Smith. To Fitzgerald Toussaint. None of them are terrible, per se (and all are guys that Rodriguez would have turned into serious contributors), but none of them, not one, will ever be remembered as runners once they are gone. I love Vincent Smith - he will always be a favorite of mine - but every time they gave it to him instead of letting Denard run it was like setting a possession on fire.
Which isn't to say that the years have been bad, or that Denard hasn't been a pleasure to watch. He has been, every single play he has been on the field. He will always be one my favorite Michigan players. Always, always, always. I just wish we'd gotten to see him do what he do a bit more often for the last two seasons.
And now I settle down to watch his last game in maize and blue. He might play in the NFL, he might not, but I can't say that I care that much. I will look back on his time in Ann Arbor with some sadness about what might have been, but mostly with fondness. That smile, man.
So long, Denard, and good luck. Thanks for being a Michigan Man.