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Past Forward

New Michigan coach Brady Hoke is itching to return the team to its pro-style ways—but he’s not about to ask Denard Robinson to change.

ON OCT. 8 AGAINST NORTHWESTERN, under the lights in Evanston, Ill., the only thing about Denard Robinson that screamed Michigan was the winged helmet. He threw three first-half interceptions, interspersing his errant passes with Katy-bar-the-door runs that have made him essential viewing every Saturday.

Robinson, to be sure, is nothing like Tom Brady, Chad Henne or the other pro-style quarterbacks the Wolverines have machine-pressed and packaged off to the NFL in the past two decades. But for a school that nurtures its traditions more dearly than perhaps any other, a combined record of 15–22 the last three seasons under Rich Rodriguez has made for trying self-analysis—and a willingness to embrace whatever works.

Enter new coach Brady Hoke. Never mind that the former UM assistant is a disciple of traditional passing offenses. He’s fully embraced the six-foot Robinson, the same QB who was the centerpiece of Rich Rod’s spread-option scheme. And in doing so, Hoke had the 6–0 Wolverines knocking on the door of the top 10 entering the heart of their Big Ten schedule.

“Everybody who ever played here has been waiting for a change,” says Dhani Jones, a former NFL linebacker who was part of the Wolverines’ 1997 national championship team. Roaming the press box at halftime in Evanston, Jones underscored Robinson’s importance to this fragile season of recovery by simply saying, “He can’t have a bad day.”

Not when he’s the junior quarterback of a team that still lacks a dominant rusher, a go-to receiver and a shutdown defense. Through Week 6, Robinson has accounted for nearly 70% of the Wolverines’ total offense, with 1,130 yards passing and 720 on the ground. In 2010, he became the first player in NCAA history to throw for 2,500 yards and rush for 1,500 more.

You don’t need to remind fans in Ann Arbor that their team was also undefeated entering October 2010, only to crumble in the conference season. So the question looms large: Can the Wolverines recapture their winning character through their uncharacteristic QB?

It also comes at a pivotal time—and an opportune one. Old rival Ohio State has faltered, and the Big Ten, attempting to keep in step with the dominant SEC, has added Nebraska, split into divisions and introduced a title game this season.

Hoke says he plans to return to a more traditional offense once Robinson is gone. In fact, the Wolverines have already received a commitment from Shane Morris, a Warren, Mich., product and one of the top dropback passers in the class of 2013. But for now and next season, Robinson, nicknamed Shoelace for playing with his cleats untied, is putting on a show.

His garishly unconventional game generates results that, week by week, are settling the unease lingering from the Rodriguez regime: Four fourth-quarter TDs in a come-from-behind win over Notre Dame on Sept. 10 tend to do that. As a program caretaker, a placeholder as Hoke’s inheritance, Robinson is using this odd and borrowed time to score an original mark on a history he otherwise would never have authored.

Former Florida coach Urban Meyer once offered to groom the four-star prep out of Deerfield Beach, Fla., into the next Percy Harvin. Instead, Robinson signed with Michigan for the chance to play the position he loves. “I came here for the football tradition,” he says. “You can’t beat that.”

History can be a burden, though, especially in the failure to live up to it—or just to look like it. But the irony about Robinson is that among the recent changes in Ann Arbor, welcome and otherwise, he represents no stylistic departure whatsoever.

Before former coach Lloyd Carr and his predecessor, Gary Moeller, began recruiting statues under center in the 1990s, Bo Schembechler relied on several QBs in the 1980s who ran better than they threw: Steve Smith, Demetrius Brown and Michael Taylor. Blasphemous though the idea may be, Rodriguez’s offense bore a closer resemblance to Schembechler’s system than the pro style that Michigan became synonymous with under Moeller and Carr. So don’t call Robinson an anomaly. Call him a throwback. Or 30 yards and a cloud of dust.

Late in the fourth quarter of the Northwestern game, deep in Wildcats territory, Robinson took the snap and rushed forward but was unable to find a point of entry at the line. He altered his route beyond the right tackle and scooted in for the score, putting his team ahead 42-24.

Robinson’s momentum propelled him up a berm that rose beyond the end zone, elevating him above the playing field. There he was, the focus, and all alone. He bent low and knelt to the grass, acknowledging something greater than him; his legs had run Michigan into fond memories of its past—and perhaps one step closer to a return to prominence.