Passing the Torch

Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

I am now absolutely certain that Denard Robinson will not start at quarterback for the rest of his Michigan career.

It is a sobering thought. Denard has been the face of Michigan football ever since he broke off those big runs against Connecticut in 2010 ("Thaaaat's six.").

He stunned Notre Dame with the biggest run ever by a quarterback in their stadium -- 80 freakin' yards! -- and leading a literally last-minute comeback against the Irish in Michigan Stadium, under the lights.

He has been the icon of Michigan football's resurgence, from the offensive record-breaking days under Rich Rodriguez to the transition under Brady Hoke that resulted in 10 wins and a Sugar Bowl victory.

He's been Michigan's best chance for a Heisman trophy since Mike Hart.

And now, we are faced with the stark reality that it's over. I had hoped that Denard's injury against Nebraska (it actually started against Illinois) was just a stinger, something from which he could easily recover.

He didn't play against Minnesota, or Northwestern. His snaps against Iowa, Michigan's last game at home (a.k.a. Senior Day), were largely ceremonial. He didn't throw a single pass.

I doubt it was because he just never got the chance. He didn't throw because he was and is still injured. It's possible Denard will be fully recovered by the bowl game, with a whole month to heal before then.

Given how much Denard has meant to this program, you would think that Michigan fans would be in Chicken Little panic mode in light of the fact that not only is Denard's career coming to a close, but for all intents and purposes, it's already ended. He is no longer Michigan's quarterback.

Though marred by injury in his final year, a devastating development for any senior, let alone one who happens to be a captain, Denard has slowly and steadily ridden off into the sunset. MGoBlog's Brian gave him a fond farewell:

Denard got a ceremonial snap, and ran for three yards, and then got another, and ran for four yards. Collectively they are the Michigan fanbase's favorite first-quarter plays to set up third and three ever. It became clear that we had been granted a reprieve from the future.

The good news (if there is such a thing as "good news" relating to Denard Robinson's injury), and primary reason why we have not panicked, is that There Is Another.

His name is Devin Gardner.

If you're a reader of the Oakland Press, Pat Caputo (an MSU grad) frequently gives props to Michigan for their play on the field and their work on the recruiting trail. He summed up the general feelings of the Denard to Gardner transition as well as any sports writer can:

Gardner played well in his first two starts in place of Robinson. Saturday, but he was sensational vs. Iowa.

His emergence provides a brighter outlook for next season. For all the angst Michigan fans have felt about Robinson the last three years, there had been no clear-cut answer for which QB would replace him. There is now.

It will be Gardner. He was 18-of-23 passing for 314 yards and three touchdowns Saturday. He ran for three touchdowns.

Of course, there is also Wojo (Bob Wojnowski) at the Detroit News:

Denard Robinson returned to the lineup just long enough to say goodbye, and to reaffirm what we already knew.

Robinson is a quarterback unlike any we've ever seen, except he left the Michigan Stadium field for the final time Saturday as a running back-quarterback-receiver, another intriguing wrinkle in a career of plenty. We saw practically a brand-new Michigan offense, with Devin Gardner excelling at quarterback and Robinson everywhere in the backfield, and the results were numbingly impressive.

Even Brian, who has long been a groupie of Denard (aren't we all?), could not overlook Gardner's prowess:

You can no longer be denied, Devin Gardner: 18/23, 314 yards, six total TDs. I be like dang.
... it's remarkable that Gardner throws an out and you're just like "this is extremely likely to be on target and moving fast when the WR catches it." His accuracy and comfort with the offense grows weekly, and when he needs to have his legs bail him out those are still around.

It's quite rare that we get such a clear indication of who the next quarterback is going to be. When Kirk Cousins neared graduation at Michigan State, Spartan fans assumed that Andrew Maxwell would pick up exactly where he'd left off and lead them to new heights.

Though Maxwell had not been battle tested, fans figured he would be not only as good as Cousins, but even better. This turned out not to be the case. Cousins' poise, leadership, and experience proved to be his greatest assets, and Maxwell, anointed as the Spartan successor and pushed to fill his shoes, lacked all three.

Part of that may have been due to witnessing the transition at Alabama from quarterback Greg McElroy to A.J. McCarron, when McCarron was virtually untested. Because of McCarron's success in 2011, it's possible Spartan fans figured the same would apply to Maxwell following Cousins. (Or, at least, that's what my Michigan State friends tell me.)

The only comparable example I can think of to Michigan's situation (Denard to Gardner) is Northwestern 2011, when Kain Colter took snaps after an injured Dan Persa went down, and Colter gave Wildcat fans their best indicator of the future. (You could also make an argument for Notre Dame 2010, when Tommy Rees stepped in for Dayne Crist, even though Crist returned the following year.)

Devin Gardner's performance over the past three games (despite against inferior opponents) has solidified his role as the starter at quarterback for next year. There was a chance, and we acknowledged it, that Denard sitting out against Minnesota and Gardner stepping in, was a one time deal. We would only get one game to see how Gardner may look as the senior leader next year.

Instead, we got three games, and Gardner has looked fantastic in all of them.

There will be no debate come next fall. Gardner has the senior standing, the talent, the chemistry with the team, and now, the experience. He will lead Michigan in 2013.

It sucks that Denard must go out this way. A large part of why Michigan came as far as it has, recovered as quickly as it did, instead of completely imploding, is from Denard Robinson's efforts. He chose not to transfer. He kept Michigan together and gave everything he had.

So when Devin Gardner says, "This is Denard's team," you better believe it.

Wojo pointed out how Denard also chose to take the high road when it came to stepping aside and allowing Gardner to take the reins:

Robinson's injury against Nebraska gave Gardner his chance, and when Robinson was cleared a week ago, Borges went to work. It's an amazing late-season adjustment, and give Michigan's staff credit for making it. While you're doing that, give Robinson credit for completely buying in. He always said he'd do whatever was needed and he kept showing it, right through his final game in the Big House, when he was the ultimate senior leader.

Now the torch has been passed, as Denard passes into legend, to Devin Gardner. There are still two more games where Denard will wear the winged helmet, however it's all but apparent that his time is done. Yet he will still contribute. He will still be a leader. Even if Denard does nothing but take meaningless snaps from now on and never throws the ball again, he will still do whatever he can to help Michigan win. That's Denard for you.

Denard Robinson is Michigan. He is a Michigan Man.

...fergodsakes.

Thank you, Denard, for giving everything that you gave. Michigan will miss you.

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