December 31, 2012 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Torch passes between Michigan quarterbacks

Tampa, Fla. -- It could've been difficult, or at least uncomfortable. One moment, Denard Robinson was among the most-recognizable college quarterbacks in the country, one of the game's all-time playmakers.

The next moment, he was watching his buddy do what he'd done. Devin Gardner is Michigan's dynamic new quarterback, a transition that was going to happen eventually. But how it happened is the telling measure of Robinson's impact.

As his remarkable college career ends with an unspecified role in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina because of his injured right elbow, Robinson remains hard to define as a quarterback, easy to define as a teammate. His impact isn't limited to his unique ability and possible status as college football's all-time leading quarterback rusher. (With 4,395 yards, he needs 86 to pass West Virginia's Pat White.)

Robinson will leave behind records and highlight reels, and a successor who received one of the best educations imaginable. In Gardner's first two years at Michigan, he shared an apartment with Robinson and they became competitive friends, or friendly competitors. Gardner learned by watching, and is ready to follow the ultimate humble leader.

"It sucks the way it happened, something I'd never wish for," Gardner said of Robinson's injury. "It might have been pretty hard on him, but he didn't show it. He didn't sweat anything, and he helped me a lot. That's the thing I really commend him for. Now I'm definitely prepared for it. There's enough pressure at Michigan, so to put added pressure on myself would be insane."

Robinson taught without really teaching, part of his enigma. For a player in the spotlight so long, he's still much closer to soft-spoken than out-spoken. And for all his success, there have been rough spots. He's an unparalleled runner and uncertain passer, and unless he throws in the Outback Bowl — perhaps unlikely with his injury — he'll finish with a completion percentage of 57.2.

Since Robinson injured an elbow nerve against Nebraska, Gardner has completed 63 percent of his passes, with eight touchdowns and four interceptions. In his four starts, Michigan's third-down conversion rate is an incredible 27-for-44.

Ask Robinson if it's difficult to watch his friend assume control, and he breaks out his famous smile. No complaints here. Even as a departing senior, it still seems all new to Robinson, who could line up at running back, quarterback, receiver, or even punt-returner on Jan. 1.

"I feel like this is still a dream for me because I never really thought I'd be playing at Michigan," he said. "We don't talk about that other stuff. We just talk about winning the game."

Robinson's health has been a mystery — he played mostly tailback the past two games — and he'll certainly play a role against South Carolina. But it also unlocked the mystery of Gardner, and in a way, Robinson facilitated the biggest transition yet.

He was the quiet kid from Florida, and for a while, everything was a blur. Gardner was the big-name recruit from Detroit who wanted to play so badly, he switched to receiver this season. In the apartment they used to share, and in the football roles they both craved, the only vicious competitiveness surfaced when they played video games or pool.

"From my first visit, I was able to connect with Denard," Gardner said. "We have the same silly personalities. He's been looked at as one of the best players ever to play in college, and the way he's handled it is amazing. He doesn't let anything affect him in a negative or positive way."

Gardner watched Robinson handle the attention, and Robinson watched Gardner handle the wait, and both gained important insight. They're different players, with Gardner more of a pure passer, although still a dangerous runner.

"Devin is one of those guys that people seem to follow, a people magnet," Robinson said. "I think he's just as much a leader on this team as I am. He's funny, and I've never seen him in a grumpy mood. Who doesn't like being around somebody that's so outgoing?"

Legacy of the 'Lace

To contrast Gardner and Robinson by the numbers isn't fair. And I still contend, Robinson will go down as one of the underappreciated stars ever at Michigan. He didn't become an accomplished passer but he endured relentless tumult, and was willing to take on any role.

Recruited by Rich Rodriguez for the spread offense, his role was thrown into question when Rodriguez was fired. Robinson scoffed at rumors of a transfer and committed to Brady Hoke and coordinator Al Borges' transition to a pro-style scheme. And all the Wolverines did was go 11-2 in Hoke's first season, then 8-4.

Gardner now has experience heading into his final two seasons (pending a medical redshirt), and a wise maturity that belies his quick-witted manner.

"He's a really smart quarterback, and he's also kind of goofy," receiver Roy Roundtree said. "He just turned 21 and now he tries to act mature, and I told him he's nothing but a big kid. But he's got that mind-set of being great. His work ethic is ridiculous."

Hoke and Borges talk positively about Gardner's growth but stop short of anointing the Next One, lest anyone forget Robinson's accomplishments.

The attention already is stirring, big shoelaces to fill. Some have slipped Gardner's name on early Heisman lists, which once may have dazzled the young quarterback, until he lived alongside the hype.

"Denard's humbleness is crazy, but he's still the ultimate competitor," Gardner said. "That's one thing people can't separate, that you can be confident without being arrogant. I also learned you can't necessarily be a leader without production, because it's hard for guys to follow you. It's production, not personality. On the field, I hardly ever smile anymore. It's business time, no time for jokes."

It's transition time for Michigan and Gardner, a new year dawning, a dynamo departing. And I suspect Robinson will leave behind more than just a blur.

Devin Gardner stepped into Denard Robinsonís shoes late in Michiganís season. / John T. Greilick / Detroit News
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