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February 22, 2013

The Week That Was: Robinson heads to the NFL Combine

The NFL Combine began this week with Michigan's Denard Robinson set to prove himself as a wide receiver in hoping to parlay his performance into greater draft potential.

Robinson looks to impress

One of the greatest running quarterbacks in NCAA history, Robinson holds the rushing record by a QB with 4,495 yards. Despite the growing trend of read-option signal-callers in the NFL, Robinson will not be a quarterback on the next level, however, and is trying to make it as a wide receiver, playing that position in the Senior Bowl earlier this month. He will participate in receiver drills on Sunday.

What They're Saying

CBSSports.com's Bruce Feldman includes Robinson among his 10 most intriguing players at the Combine, writing: "One of the greatest players in the Wolverines' storied history is ready to move on to the NFL. Robinson should run in the 4.3s and has a strong enough frame to make you think he can be a factor as a slot receiver in the NFL. Some have worried about his hands, though. Those drills will be the ones that everyone is going to want to study in Indy."

Kyle Meinke of MLive.com will be attending the Combine in Indianapolis and reports that Robinson must accomplish three things over the next few days: proving he can catch every pass thrown his way, demonstrate an incredible 40-yard dash time that wows scouts, and pass every physical after battling through a nerve injury during the season.

The key component, though, is showing he can be an NFL receiver, Meinke noted, writing: "Perhaps NFL Network's Mike Mayock put it best: 'What I'd like to see is him go to the combine and catch every ball they throw in every drill. From the time he walks out on the field, I want to see him catch everything. From now through the draft, that's what I want to see. Run routes and catch everything. Those are the two things they'll be looking for, because I think everything else checks off.'"

Robinson himself, meanwhile, says he just needs "one team to fall in love with me" in this The Detroit News article.

My Take: Robinson won't be confused with Calvin Johnson or Reggie Wayne anytime soon, but there is no reason he can't play a role as a playmaker in the NFL. Still, let's not get carried away and profess with certainty he'll be the next Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El or (current version) Randall Cobb - all former college QBs that became successful NFL wide receivers.

This is not an easy transition, even for a great athlete, and Robinson has a long road ahead of him. What he needs to find is the right coach/organization that will be patient with him, giving him at least a year or two before demanding the results a player must produce or risk being cut.

Robinson won't be outworked, and he'll be a strong locker room presence while he is a terrific ambassador for the community, but the NFL is a win/loss business and he'll likely have only his rookie contract terms to prove he can make a strong contribution. I wouldn't expect him to ever become a go-to receiver in the traditional sense, but there is no reason he couldn't be the next Dexter McCluster, catching the majority of his balls at or just beyond the line of scrimmage in turning them into, potentially, big plays.

Robinson, Lewan, Ryan ranked among Big Ten's best

ESPN.com's Big Ten beat-report duo of Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett are counting down the conference's top 25 players in 2012 and are currently at No. 3, with Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Ohio State's Braxton presumably the top two. The site included three Wolverines, ranking Robinson No. 25, linebacker Jake Ryan No. 17 and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan No. 7.

What They're Saying

Robinson was ranked sixth preseason but his struggles as a passer dropped him 19 spots. "There's little doubt that Robinson is one of the most electrifying talents to ever come through the Big Ten. He just wasn't always an outstanding quarterback," Bennett wrote.

"Though he worked hard on his mechanics in the offseason, Robinson's completion percentage in 2012 was his lowest since his freshman year. He infamously threw four interceptions in the loss at Notre Dame, a game that Michigan otherwise controlled statistically. He tossed another pair of interceptions in the opener versus Alabama. The Wolverines' passing game struggled for most of the season until Devin Gardner magically revived it -- and the team's receivers -- after Robinson went down."

As for Lewan, U-M's highest-ranked performer, Rittenberg was very complimentary: "In a season where little went as expected for Big Ten offensive lines or individual linemen, Lewan delivered the goods for Michigan. He cemented himself as one of the nation's top tackles, earning first- or second-team All-America honors from numerous outlets and being named the Big Ten's top offensive lineman.

"Michigan's offense endured its ups and downs in 2012, and the line struggled with run-blocking for anyone not named Denard Robinson. But Lewan held his own against the league's top defensive linemen and limited South Carolina superhuman Jadeveon Clowney in the bowl game."

My Take: I ranked the Top 25 players back in January (and didn't take as long to unveil all of them), and for the most part, we agree on who the top 10 players were (eight are the same on both lists), though not the order.

The most egregious ranking on ESPN.com's list is Kain Colter at No. 23. Northwestern was one of only three teams in the Big Ten this year to win 10 or more games (Nebraska and Ohio State) and was the conference's only bowl-game champion, and Colter was as critical to his team's success as any other player in the league. He didn't garner the attention that Miller or Nebraska's Taylor Martinez did, and he won't likely next September, but when the Wildcats contend for the Legends Division in 2013, everyone will know Colter's name.

As for the three Wolverines, I probably overvalued Robinson - call it the beat-writer bias - but Ryan and Lewan were similarly ranked. A year from now, they have the chance to be even higher. Ryan should compete with OSU's Ryan Shazier to be the best defensive player in the conference, and Lewan could be a top-five player also if the Wolverines' offense blossoms and the Maize and Blue contend for the Big Ten title.

Michigan is a team to watch in 2013

Notre Dame came out of nowhere in 2012 to play for the BCS National Championship game and The Sporting News thinks that could be Michigan next year. The Wolverines return seven starters next fall offensively and six defensively, and have most of their big games at home, with Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State visiting The Big House.

What They're Saying

"The lines of scrimmage are physical, and the balance on offense will allow Michigan to do what it wants to do: control the game by controlling tempo and playing defense," SportingNews.com's Matt Hayes writes. "This team isn't that far away, and if coach Brady Hoke continues to recruit well, Michigan have the best chance of this group of five to reach the championship game."

My Take: Michigan has a very good chance to win the Big Ten title next season and should be the favorite to represent the Legends Division, though Nebraska has a more favorable schedule (no Wisconsin or Ohio State). Still, expecting U-M to contend for the national title is a little much because it's unlikely the Wolverines survive 2013 unscathed and the Big Ten won't get the benefit of the doubt.

The Notre Dame game is there to be had and with Penn State expected to take a tumble, Michigan could be 7-0 heading into East Lansing. However, the Maize and Blue have to play Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern in back-to-back-to-back weeks and coming out of that stretch 3-0 is asking a lot. It could happen, but for now, I'm predicting U-M to be 9-2 heading into a rematch with OSU, with a win securing a spot in the Big Ten Championship.

Indiana is the team to beat

In a colossal Tuesday matchup between the Big Ten's two first-place teams, No. 1 Indiana prevailed 72-68 over No. 4 Michigan State, moving a game up on the Spartans and 2.5 games up on Michigan in the conference standings.

What They're Saying

All eyes were on this matchup so many of college basketball's experts weighed in, including SI.com's Andy Glockner, who says IU not only established itself as the Big Ten favorite but possibly the NCAA favorite also.

"Maybe this is what the giveaway loss at Illinois has borne in these Hoosiers, who are looking more and more like the team to beat heading into the NCAA tournament," he wrote. "In the span of 10 days and two very impressive road wins, they have grabbed control at the top of the Big Ten and are arrowing directly toward the Indianapolis regional that has loomed all season as their prize for sustained excellence. December's Butler epic aside, Indiana is going to be very, very tough to stop in that environment."

The Detroit News Bob Wojnowski, meanwhile, focused his column on Michigan State's effort, noting the difference between winning and losing is razor thin, but that Indiana made the plays it had to have.

"This was college basketball mostly at its finest, certainly at its tautest. There's not much separating the first-place Hoosiers from the second-place Spartans, and there's not much separating the nation's top team from the fourth-ranked team.

"But the separation was there, and it surfaced in the clutch, where it usually does. Indiana junior guard Victor Oladipo was tremendous, and his tip-in with 43 seconds left produced a 68-67 lead. After that, it was Michigan State's talented freshman, Gary Harris, trying to make plays - and the super swift Oladipo actually making them."

My Take: Certainly anything is possible as evidenced by Indiana's loss to Illinois on the road Feb. 7, but that loss seemed to serve as a wake-up call for the Hoosiers, and the only thing standing between them and the Big Ten regular-season title is Michigan March 10. Even if U-M wins, however, it would need Indiana to fall either at Minnesota Feb. 26 or home to Ohio State March 5. The Wolverines also need to win all of their games, which doesn't look promising after they struggled to a 79-71 win over Penn State Sunday.

Michigan State is a tough matchup for the Maize and Blue, and while Michigan should be better rested and motivated for that game March 3, they still have to prove they can beat MSU, and the Spartans will carry with them considerable swagger after a blowout win at the Breslin Center. A loss to State would be incredibly damaging because Michigan needs to ramp back up and dropping that game could affect U-M's psyche in its final two regular-season games: on the road at Purdue and especially against Indiana.

Michigan has to have that win over MSU, but here's one forecast that says it doesn't happen. Chalk up a loss to Indiana also; Michigan finishes 12-6 and the fourth seed. The Wolverines advance to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament but lose and go into NCAAs moping a bit. After a shaky opening two rounds, the Maize and Blue play their best game of the year to advance to the Elite Eight and after that … the crystal ball cannot see that far so check back.

Trey Burke remains the Player of the Year favorite

Averaging 18.6 points per game and 6.9 assists, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of almost 4:1, Burke is the slight favorite to be named college basketball's Player of the Year.

What They're Saying

If Burke does in fact win the Wooden Award, it would be a rare accomplishment for a point guard, ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein notes: "Since the Wooden Award began in the 1976-77 season, only five pure point guards have nabbed one of the four major trophies. Marquette's Butch Lee and North Carolina's Phil Ford split the awards in 1977-78. Duke's Jay Williams was the consensus winner in 2001-02; Texas' T.J. Ford split the award with a non-point guard -- Xavier's David West -- in 2002-03; and [Jameer] Nelson won the next season."

Burke continues to lead in ESPN.com's bi-monthly straw poll, but his advantage over Indiana junior guard Victor Oladipo is slim.

CBSSports.com's Jeff Goodman and Gary Parrish still list Burke No. 1 but Oladipo jumped from fourth to first in their rankings.

My Take: While the award is not supposed to recognize the best player on the best team, it seems likely that the performance of Michigan and Indiana overall will greatly shape how this race finishes. Both players have two marquee games remaining on the regular-season schedule, including the U-M vs. IU matchup March 10.

Burke has been the Wolverines' MVP and the better player from start to finish but if Indiana wins the Big Ten, and especially if Michigan drops games to MSU and Indiana, Oladipo will win this award because he will carry more buzz as voters are pressed to make their decisions.

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