Denard Robinson walked into the lockerroom Wednesday at the Senior Bowl and instead of seeing a yellow jersey hanging in his locker, he saw a white jersey.
“I was happy,” said Robinson, one of the nation’s most electrifying dual-threat players as a quarterback at Michigan.
The jersey color was significant. It meant Robinson, an all-state player at Deerfield Beach High School, finally received medical clearance to participate in practice.
The timing of the jersey change was significant, too.
Robinson, the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher as a quarterback (4,495 yards) among FBS schools, is making the switch to wide receiver in the NFL. He’s also trying to return punts and kickoffs. He needs all the practice time he can get so he can show NFL teams he can do all the things other receivers do -- run routes, get open, and catch the ball.
But an injury to the ulnar nerve in his right elbow, something that dogged him the last few games of his college career, kept him sidelined for the first two days of practice for Saturday’s Senior Bowl. Robinson participated in practices Wednesday and Thursday and gave himself a passing grade.
“Of course it’s tough,” he said, “but you’ve just got to go out there and keep working at it.”
Robinson’s position change isn’t unique. It’s been going on for more than two decades with varying degrees of success. NFL wide receivers such as Armanti Edwards (Carolina), Antwaan Randle-El (Pittsburgh), Hines Ward (Pittsburgh), Kordell Stewart (Pittsburgh) and Brad Smith (Buffalo) made the transition from college quarterback. Others such as Marcus Vick (Virginia Tech), Ronald Curry (North Carolina) and Matt Jones (Arkansas) weren’t as successful. And then there’s a middle ground that includes players such as cornerback DeAndre Presley (Dolphins practice squad).
At 5-foot-11, and possessing passing skills that aren’t considered NFL-ready, it’s doubtful Robinson has a NFL future as a quarterback. So the plan is for him to try wide receiver or anything else that could allow him to use his tremendous athleticism and 4.3-second 40-yard dash speed.
“I think it’s a good plan,” said a NFL general manager. “Really it’s the more you can do. That’s the way the NFL is. He’s out there trying to return kicks, he’s out there trying to return punts, trying to learn the receiver thing. You’ve got a lot of guys who can kind of do multiple of things. If he wants to be in the NFL that’s got to be his approach.
“And he’s attacking it, he’s trying to show everybody he’s trying to do whatever. That’s what it’s all about. You just want to see him try to get in the game and hopefully have a little bit of success.”
One of the immediate complications for Robinson’s transition to receiver, according to NFL Network analyst Charles Davis, is the elbow injury rendered the last two fingers on his right hand numb, likely making catching passes, punts and kickoffs more difficult.
“He’s playing hurt,” Davis said. “He said these two fingers are numb. He said (feeling in the fingers is) starting to come back.”
USC free safety T.J. McDonald, a projected mid-round pick, has gone against Robinson in practice but said it’s too early to tell if he can make the switch to wide receiver.
“Only time can tell,” McDonald said. “He’s been playing quarterback his whole career. You can’t tell in three days how he’s going to pan out. It might take him a little time, but he’s an athlete, I know that. Sometimes it might take guys a little more time, but when it clicks, it can go.”
With the advent of the spread option offense in the NFL there might be a chance Robinson becomes even more valuable because he presents the possibility of a dangerous runner and capable passer. However, that’s not foremost in his thoughts.
“I haven’t been thinking about that,” he said. “I’ve just been thinking about playing receiver right now and just focused on that.”