The first time the shoelaces came untied, Denard Robinson was a quarterback for the Deerfield Beach Packer Rattlers of the South Florida Youth Football League, and his coach called him to the sideline at Westside Park. "Tie your shoes," said the coach, Sammie Huggins, and the seven-year-old Robinson dropped to one knee. On the next play the shoelaces came untied again, and Huggins summoned him once more. "Tie your shoes!" Huggins said, and Robinson nodded dutifully. When the laces came untied a third time, Robinson jogged back to Huggins, but the coach waved him off. "Just do your thing," Huggins said.
Robinson didn't need the laces. He had the wheels. When he raced boys down city streets, locals looking to make a quick buck told out-of-towners his name was Denard, because everybody knew you didn't bet against Shoelace. When he got to Michigan, he couldn't find a fair race, so he gave tailbacks 10-yard head starts. He ran against high school students who visited practice. He went out for track and challenged All-America sprinter and Olympian Adam Harris. "He's like a kid who plays tag," says Michigan track coach Fred LaPlante, "and never wants to be it."
Only one man could slow Shoelace, a new coach with a mandate to restore old Michigan. Brady Hoke forbids any hat without a block m in Schembechler Hall and refers to the 2011 Wolverines as "Team 132," because 131 came before. Hoke arrived in Ann Arbor with the same pro-style offense that has sent eight Michigan quarterbacks since 1987 on five-step drops to the NFL. The 6-foot Robinson, a dreadlocked dervish recruited by former coach Rich Rodriguez to run the spread option, often didn't drop back at all. He sometimes had to jump to see over the line. His mechanics were a mess, his legs a marvel. Opposing players ripped off his untied Adidas to sneak breathers.
In an era when coaches and players are wedded to systems more than schools, Hoke and Robinson have formed an unlikely union. Robinson is learning the pro style, Hoke is incorporating the spread option, and Michigan is 7--2 after a 24--16 loss last Saturday at Iowa. Robinson is accounting for 64.8% of the Wolverines' offense. When Hoke was hired from San Diego State in January, he refused to watch tape of Michigan players, afraid of building biases, but offensive coordinator Al Borges studied every snap. Borges told Hoke, "Denard Robinson is going to be scared [of the potential for change]. You have to make sure he doesn't leave." Michigan was once so foreign to Robinson that he made snow angels in the Big House on his recruiting visit and packed a bag of snow for the flight back to Florida. But by last season he was making impromptu visits to juvenile detention centers in Detroit.
Robinson discussed his options with Rodriguez, the deposed coach who came to Ann Arbor in 2007 and went 3--9 in his first season, after vaunted quarterback Ryan Mallett, a classic drop-back passer, transferred to Arkansas. "You don't want that to happen again [to the program]," said Rodriguez, now an analyst for CBS Sports Network. "You need to stick with these guys."
On Hoke's first day he met with Robinson and offered "an opportunity" to compete for the starting job. Robinson was coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,702 yards, the most ever by a Michigan quarterback, and threw for 2,570. "An opportunity was enough for me," says Robinson, who raised his hand in a team meeting the next day and scolded the Wolverines for assuming he might bail. "That was when he became a leader," says senior nosetackle Mike Martin.
Borges, a purveyor of the pro style for 30 years, spent spring practice teaching Robinson how to step up in the pocket, angle his hips toward targets and drive his body through throws. Occasionally Borges let Robinson run the spread. Each time Robinson took off, Borges wondered if he should be the one to adjust and let Shoeskie—the new nickname, from center David Molk—do his thing.
In the opener against Western Michigan, the Wolverines used roughly 50% pro style and 50% spread. On Saturday they were down to about 30% pro style and 70% spread. "We changed more than I ever thought we would," Borges says. The final drive against Iowa encapsulated the risk and reward with Robinson. Down by eight points with 2:15 to play, he led a 79-yard drive to the Hawkeyes' three-yard line. The rally ended, however, with four straight Robinson incompletions as time ran out.
His completion percentage has dipped—from 62.5% last season to 52.0—but he is attempting more ambitious passes (he is averaging 16.3 yards per completion compared with 14.1 last year) and rushing for 104.3 yards a game. Michigan, which begins its most demanding stretch of the season with games against Illinois, Nebraska and Ohio State in the next three weeks, is tied for second in the Big Ten's Legends division, and the defense, 110th last year, is up to 28th.
Only a junior, Robinson is learning lessons from Borges crucial to a professional future and allowing Hoke to build momentum Rodriguez never could. Michigan's 2012 recruiting class is ranked second by Rivals, and the Wolverines' first commitment for 2013 is from 6'3" quarterback Shane Morris, a pro-style prototype from De La Salle High in Warren, Mich. "Coach Hoke will build a house with his own tools," says former Michigan Heisman Trophy winner and ESPN analyst Desmond Howard, who refers to Robinson as his twin brother because of their matching smiles. "But first you build it with the tools you have."