Devin Gardner was Denard Robinson's backup until Robinson was hurt midway through the 2012 season. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor – Former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, more than a year removed from his final college season, has kept an eye on the Wolverines and ex-roommate Devin Gardner, in particular.
Michigan struggled to a 7-6 season behind Gardner, the full-time starting quarterback last year. Gardner missed the bowl game because of a significant turf toe injury and will be limited when spring practice begins Tuesday.
Robinson and former safety Jordan Kovacs – both were captains in 2012 – joined Michigan coach Brady Hoke as judges of the Polar Plunge for Special Olympics on Saturday in Michigan Stadium. There were 417 participants who wore clever costumes and jumped into ice water to help raise about $130,000 for the Special Olympics.
Last season during a rare break from the Jacksonville Jaguars, Robinson was able to be on the sideline for the Michigan-Michigan State game, which was the beginning of a November skid for the Wolverines.
Robinson, however, sees great potential in Gardner and the team.
“It was rough,” Robinson said of last season. “My freshman year was rough, my second year was rough. You’ve just got to keep going and stay true to the team and just know that you can always get better.”
He and Devin remained in contact throughout the season, with phone calls and texts, and his message was always the same – keep fighting.
“I think he’s going to make a big jump from last year to this year,” Robinson said. “That’s the only thing you can do is get better. He’s a competitor. He doesn’t like losing.”
The takeaways from starting a whole season are significant, Robinson said, like understanding the hits your body can endure and understanding how teams will play you.
Gardner will have to compete for his job with Shane Morris, who started the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl as a freshman, Russell Bellomy and freshman Wilton Speight, an early enrollee who will participate in spring practice.
It is difficult to overlook that Gardner has a year of starts, not to mention the final five of 2012 when Robinson was hurt. He is bound to get better.
“He’s a freak athlete,” Robinson said. “He’s one of the guys that can change a game. I mean, you’ve seen him in the Notre Dame game (last season), you’ve seen the highlights of him. I think he can be consistent with it this year. I think he’ll be real consistent playing like that.”
Robinson, Kovacs and former defensive lineman Will Campbell are working out at Schembechler Hall this offseason with Aaron Wellman, Michigan’s strength and conditioning coach.
“We push each other -- sometimes Denard needs that, so I felt obligated to come back,” Kovacs said, laughing.
It was a challenging rookie year in the NFL for both, with Robinson adjusting to running back and Kovacs, a former walk-on who went through two tryouts to make the Michigan team, fighting for a spot on the Miami Dolphins.
Kovacs said the key is to prepare and always be ready for an opportunity.
“You’re on the hot seat every day,” Kovacs said. “That’s how I’ve approached it. You’re evaluated day-to-day, week-to-week.
“It’s such a business, but it’s fun. I’m getting paid to play ball. You can’t beat that.”
He attended the Notre Dame night game last season at Michigan Stadium. Kovacs gained a new perspective.
“When you’re in the program, you don’t realize how big it is,” Kovacs said. “You’re just like, ‘Oh, I’m just playing football.’ But sitting in the stands – I knew how big it was but forgot while I was playing. I just looked at it as football. But when I watched the guys run out of the tunnel, it was emotional, it was tough, but it was fun watching them play.”