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Shoelace attempts to redefine himself in the NFL

During much of his four years at Michigan, Denard Robinson was one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, making a spectacular impact on the game with both his arm and his legs.

But while the one affectionately nicknamed 'Shoelace' is surely on the radar of many NFL executives for next week's draft, his playing days under center are surely all but over.

Leading a Michigan program that has churned out several successful, but more traditional, drop-back style quarterbacks like Elvis Grbac, Brian Griese, Tom Brady and Chad Henne over the past two decades, Robinson bucked the trend for the Maize and Blue with his dual-threat ability. He exploded on to the scene as a full-time starter in 2010 as a sophomore, and put together one of the greatest seasons in NCAA history, becoming the first player ever to throw for at least 2,500 yards (2,570) and rush for at least 1,500 yards (1,702) in a single season, all while contributing 32 total touchdowns.

While Robinson's junior and senior campaign failed to live up to the historic 2010 season, he still managed to rush for more 2,400 yards in his final two years, accounting for a combined 52 touchdowns.

Despite Robinson's storied colligate career, he saw his completion percentage go down in each of the past three seasons, finishing with a lackluster .533 mark in 2012, making the undersized (5-foot-11) gunslinger's dream of calling signals at the pro level a long shot at best.

In the midst of Michigan's relatively disappointing 8-5 season last fall, the squad began to prepare Robinson for his NFL future, giving him snaps at both running back and wide receiver. He also participated in the 2013 Senior Bowl, catching two passes for 21 yards, and he put forth a strong showing at the NFL Combine, running a 4.43 40-yard dash.

Robinson, still adjusting to a life that won't have him lining up under center, feels as though he is getting better with each passing day.

"I've been improving from the Senior Bowl to the Combine to (Michigan's) Pro Day," Robinson said. "I think I (am getting) better, and I will continue to do that."

At Michigan's pro day, Robinson didn't drop a ball either as a receiver or a return man, which was a great sign for a player who is an unseasoned pass- catcher. If Robinson does what he vows to do in improving his ball skills, that paired with his already-established resume' of lightning-quick feet, unquestioned speed, strong lower body and effortless change-of-direction ability will make him a valuable asset to just about every team in the NFL.

Robinson's best chance at making an immediate impact at the next level is in the return game, where his elite acceleration and field vision could be used to great effect, and while he's never fielded a punt or a kick in a real game, just like with his pass-catching, he feels with some seasoning he can be one of the best in the game.

"Just catch and catch -- keep doing it," Robinson said of his relentless work ethic. "I try to catch punts every day for probably 30 minutes to an hour -- every day until the kicker's leg gets tired."

The transition from dynamic college quarterback to NFL skill player is hardly a new phenomenon, as several guys have crossed over to varying degrees of success. Eric Crouch won the 2001 Heisman Trophy for Nebraska and his elite athleticism allowed him to be selected in the third round by the St. Louis Rams, but he failed to get off the practice squad in his four-year career. Pat White came out of West Virginia to be a second-round selection by the Miami Dolphins in 2009, but he has compiled just 81 rushing yards in 13 career games, and has never completed a pass.

While the position-changing experiment has failed for some, Robinson hopes to follow in the footsteps of some recent athletes who have shined in their new roles. Brad Smith (Missouri) has enjoyed a multi-dimensional career as a receiver/returner/wildcat quarterback for the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills since being selected in the fourth round in 2006. Josh Cribbs (Kent State) is a three-time Pro Bowler as a return man for the Cleveland Browns with 11 career return touchdowns in eight seasons. Antwaan Randle El (Indiana) retired following the 2010 season after logging 370 receptions and 15 touchdowns (nine receiving, six return) in nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Washington Redskins, and while his attempts were sparse, he also shined when given the opportunity to throw (22-of-27, 323 yards, six TDs, zero INTs).

The biggest question surrounding Robinson is which group will he fall into? After a slow start this offseason, which began with some major questions following the Senior Bowl, as the draft approaches things are looking up for Robinson. Draft experts are predicting him to go as high as the third round, and the way some teams are fawning over him, it would be a surprise if he lasted beyond Day Two.

"I think he's the ultimate hybrid Swiss-army knife type of player," Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said. "He can do so many things. You have to have a creative offensive mind, creative coaching staff, to figure out the best way to use him."

Some college quarterbacks head into the NFL with a narrow mind, feeling bitter about switching positions and not giving their full effort or attention anywhere other than quarterback, but with Robinson, it appears to be quite the opposite, as he's excited and ready to begin the next chapter of his career.

"Being able to step on a National Football League field -- I think that would be a blessing in itself," Robinson said. "Being drafted would be a blessing in itself. Right now, I'm just trying to soak everything in and make the most of today and tomorrow and the opportunities that I get."