The Jaguars call Denard Robinson a running back, but the former quarterback fills several roles, including playing on special teams. (Andrew Nelles / Associated Press)
In Jacksonville, there’s a quarterback competition involving a former Michigan quarterback. But it’s not the first name that might come to mind.
Rather, it’s former UM signal-caller Chad Henne, in his seventh season, competing with rookie first-round pick Blake Bortles for the Jaguars’ starting job.
Denard Robinson is out of the spotlight, for a change. Robinson was in a fishbowl of constant attention and interviews in his standout career at Michigan from 2009-12. After displaying an unprecedented blend of running and passing as a Wolverines quarterback — rushing for 4,495 yards and throwing for 6,250 yards in his career — Robinson has taken on an altogether different role in the NFL, as an all-around player.
But adjusting to relative anonymity doesn’t bother Robinson, picked by the Jaguars in the fifth round of the 2013 draft.
“It’s cool. Of course, (as a quarterback) you get that spotlight,” Robinson told The Detroit News. “I really was not a guy that loved the spotlight but it comes with the (quarterback) position, so you have to embrace it.”
When Robinson makes his return to the state in Friday’s exhibition game against the Lions at Ford Field, he’ll get a quick reminder of what that popularity was like. But as a pro, he’s mostly been on the periphery, as he switched from quarterback to “offensive weapon” in the Jaguars’ offense last year.
This season, under coach Gus Bradley, Robinson is listed as a running back, which could have him seeing more action on offense and could provide an opportunity to have more touches than his 20 carries for 66 rushing yards in 16 games last season.
“I’m a running back right now; it’s fun doing that,” Robinson said. “I’m just helping the team out with whatever I can do.”
Maurice Jones-Drew, No. 2 on the Jaguars’ career rushing list, went to the Raiders in the offseason, leaving the onus on Toby Gerhart — who was a backup for Adrian Peterson for four years with the Vikings — to carry the load. Gerhart hasn’t rushed for more than 531 yards in a season, leaving an opportunity for others to fill the void.
With Robinson’s relatively small size (6-foot, 197 pounds), he’s not ideally suited to running inside — that’ll be left to Gerhart — so he’ll be a change-of-pace back and can split duties at wide receiver. With a spate of injuries in the preseason, the Jaguars are desperate for healthy bodies, and Robinson fits the bill.
Although he had concerns because of nerve damage in his arm during his senior season at UM and into his rookie year, Robinson said he’s doing better now, which is helping him grasp the ball better, despite his three fumbles last season.
“It’s still lingering a little bit but for the most part, it’s healthier. I’m not the kind of guy that complains about things; I just go with it and have fun with it and enjoy it,” he said. “The hand issue is done. I feel a lot better; I can open my hands and grab and I feel comfortable with it.”
The Jaguars ranked 31st in rushing offense last season and with Jones-Drew gone, Robinson has an opportunity to be the backup.
Part of getting a bigger role in the offense is establishing a better rapport with Henne, who is likely to be the starter until Bortles develops; Henne started 13 of 15 games last season, so he provides needed experience. Having a common background of playing quarterback at Michigan certainly helps Robinson in that effort.
“That’s a big thing. If you go to Michigan, you have a connection with each other. It’s a brotherhood and it’s like a fraternity,” Robinson said. “You share the same experiences, the same places you went, same coaches and trainers, same equipment guys. Some things don’t change.”
When he got to the NFL, though, Robinson didn’t have the same luster as he had in Ann Arbor. Pro players were just as fast or faster than he was. His main objective became just securing a spot on the roster — and for a rookie, that often means more than being just a position player with a singular skill.
“I did work on my strength and I did work on trying to maintain my speed and do little things,” he said. “I’m making sure I keep my pads low. That’s one of the big things because I was so used to running from the QB position; now I have learn how to run with my pads low.”
But the biggest adjustment Robinson had to make was making himself more valuable by playing on special teams. That’s where his speed becomes an asset — but not having played special teams in high school or college, he’s had to learn a lot of the technique on the fly.
“It is different, but you enjoy it and have fun with it,” he said. “It’s fun just to go out there and play a different position and playing on this high level, you have to find your niche in the NFL. That’s one of the things that comes with it. If you’re not the main guy, you have to find a role on special teams.”
Thoughts of the north
Playing in Jacksonville, Florida, Robinson is only a few hours away from his hometown of Deerfield Beach. But Ann Arbor always will be a second home for him, as he spent some of the best years of his life at Michigan.
Even though he’s moved back to a warmer climate, he’s still held on to his winter clothes, because the opportunity might arise to make a visit back to his alma mater — even in the cold.
“It’s great to be back in sunny Florida and being able to have fun with it. I’m not worried about the winters; it gets cold here but not as cold as Michigan with snow on the ground,” he said. “It’s really different but I enjoyed the different seasons in Michigan.”
With the Jaguars, he still maintains his distinctive dreadlocks and untied shoelaces and the smile that endeared him to Michigan fans.
No matter where he is on the field, or what position he plays, some things aren’t likely to change.