ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Denard Robinson has become the elephant in Brady Hoke’s room.
There have been times in Hoke’s two seasons at Michigan where he couldn’t stop talking about his multi-talented quarterback, but that has changed ever since Robinson left the Nebraska game with a nerve problem in his throwing elbow.
The Wolverines lost that game as backup Russell Bellomy — another forgotten man — struggled badly, but have rallied to win two in a row with Devin Gardner at quarterback. All the while, Hoke has barely acknowledged that his star quarterback still exists.
“He’s day-to-day,” Hoke said Monday, not when asked about Robinson’s injury status, but when asked about Saturday being Senior Day. The same cliche was pulled out, with minor variations, every time Hoke was asked a question about Robinson.
Things got so strange at one point that, when he was asked about Robinson’s impact on the program, Hoke almost immediately started talking about Will Campbell’s career.
It isn’t that Robinson is in the doghouse — when pressed, Hoke did say that he’s been working hard with Devin Gardner and cheering on his teammates. It’s simply a case of Hoke’s pathological aversion to talking about injuries. He wants Iowa and Ohio State to have to build their game plan around stopping Robinson’s world-class speed, so Hoke’s not about to admit that the injury might keep him out for the rest of the season.
This isn’t limited to Robinson, of course. At one point during Monday’s press conference, Hoke simultaneously broke several rules of the English language and invented a new verb when he said that Dennis Norfleet was returning punts because Jeremy Gallon “had boo-booed himself.”
Things just get more extreme with Robinson because his special set of skills are a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators. With him at the helm, Michigan runs a spread read-option offense, which means he could run on almost every play and in almost every direction. When Gardner is at quarterback, he tends to be under center and either handing off or rolling out to pass, presenting an entirely different set of problems for the defense.
If Hoke won’t talk about Robinson’s playing status, defenses have to prepare for two different quarterbacks running two different offenses. Hoke knows that’s a huge advantage for the Wolverines, so he’s not going to slip up, even when the question seems perfectly safe. Michigan has emphasized the highly classified nature of Robinson’s elbow by not making him available to the media this week, even though he and his fellow seniors are preparing for their last game at Michigan Stadium.
Robinson’s teammates, though, dropped a couple inadvertent hints that they don’t expect him to be in uniform Saturday against Iowa.
“When you come to Michigan, I think you always have the dream of having the big ending at The Big House,” guard Patrick Omameh said. “Sometimes, though, you don’t get that — you just have to go with the cards you are dealt.”
Every player who spoke Monday, though, raved about the way that Robinson has handled himself, both in his four-year career and during his injury.
“Denard is a guy that has thrust himself into the conversation with the greatest players in Michigan history, but you would never know that from talking to him,” defensive end Craig Roh said. “He is always positive, and he brings that to practice every day.
There are times it gets annoying — I don’t think I’ve ever seen the guy in a bad mood — but he’s been great for this program. That hasn’t changed at all in the last two weeks.
“I know it has to be really tough to be injured at the end of your senior year, but he hasn’t seem fazed at all.”
Reading between the lines, it doesn’t seem likely that Robinson is going to play against the Hawkeyes, and his availability at Ohio State seems questionable.
Would he be available for a bowl game? Or did one of the most spectacular careers in Michigan history come to a quiet, sad end on a seemingly innocent play in Lincoln, Nebraska?
The question will be raised many, many times during the next several weeks.