The right fit makes all the difference
There are college football players who would have been stars no matter the era, no matter the style of play. Reggie Bush would have shone as brightly in Knute Rockne's Notre Dame box as he did at USC. To reverse the timeline, Glenn Davis, Mr. Outside for Army's dominant wartime teams, would have been just as unstoppable in the Wildcat.
When the college football gods are in the mood, however, the right player arrives on the right campus at precisely the right moment. He is recruited for a scheme that fits him like a bespoke suit.
Wisconsin didn't ask tailback Ron Dayne to run wheel routes in the West Coast offense. Coach Barry Alvarez gave Dayne the ball and told him to run. Dayne's 252 pounds delivered blows behind an offensive line that delivered bigger blows.
Steve Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun offense never looked as unstoppable as when Danny Wuerffel played quarterback. Wuerffel didn't have the physical gifts to play in the NFL. But his accuracy, timing and, yes, temperament found the ideal home in the Swamp in the mid-90s. Wuerffel, better than any other quarterback Spurrier has ever had, focused on what the Head Ball Coach said, not how he ranted it.
Jamelle Holieway -- all 5-foot-11, 185 pounds of him -- made future NFL Hall of Famer Troy Aikman transfer from Oklahoma. One guy fit into the Sooners' option game. One guy left for UCLA.
And now, Denard Robinson is wearing No. 16 at Michigan, where you can find him in two places. Before the snap, Robinson is 5 yards behind the center. After the snap, Robinson is behind the tacklers, hair and shoelaces flapping in rhythm as he races downfield.
The statistics Robinson has collected are like tortilla chips. It's difficult to consume one and not keep reaching into the bag. Through five games, he leads the nation in rushing with 181 yards per game. He is fourth in the nation in passing efficiency (179.97 rating). He is averaging 9.23 yards per rush. Think about that -- Robinson is averaging second-and-inches.
Robinson has started five games at Michigan this season. He has been Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week three times.
But enough with the tortilla chips. Robinson, a 6-foot, 188-pound sophomore from Deerfield Beach, Fla., turned down Florida's offer to play quarterback and several offers to play defensive back or wide receiver and chose Michigan.
"I'm in the right place at the right time," Robinson said, "right coaches, right place and right teammates, God willing."
Robinson gained 502 yards of total offense against Notre Dame. He gained 494 yards against Indiana. As the 18th-ranked Wolverines enter the meat of their Big Ten schedule, with No. 17 Michigan State coming to the Big House on Saturday, those Xbox numbers might disappear. Then again, they might not. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez's spread option offense has made stars of players throughout his career.
Robinson is on pace to rush for 2,000 yards and pass for 2,000 yards, which would rip the guts right out of the NCAA record book. It was only nine years ago that the first player passed for 2,000 yards and rushed for 1,000 in one season: Woody Dantzler of Clemson. His offensive coordinator: Rodriguez.
Three years earlier, when Rodriguez ran the offense at Tulane, Shaun King became the first quarterback to pass for 300 yards and rush for 100 in a game. King led the Green Wave to a 12-0 record in that season, 1998.
Pat White, Rodriguez's quarterback at West Virginia, almost signed with LSU, which recruited him as an athlete with promises that he could try quarterback. Instead, White went to Morgantown, where he became the first quarterback in NCAA history to pass for 5,000 yards and rush for 4,000 in his career (2005-08).
And now, Robinson appears as if he will top them all. He sounds a bit like White when he talks about why he turned down his home-state team to come north. Robinson felt as if he could do more at Michigan than at Florida.
"They told me they were recruiting me [to play] like [Tim] Tebow and I would have a chance to play as a freshman," Robinson said. "At Michigan, I had a better chance of starting right now and playing right now. He [Rodriguez] said I could be one of the great quarterbacks in this offense."
"He takes a 7- or 8-yard gain, and he takes it 20 yards and maybe 50," Rodriguez said. "There's also more experience up front and more experience on the perimeter. It's our third year in the system and the second year of playing for a lot of guys. Denard's only started five games. What is he going to be like when he gets a few more pieces of the puzzle?"
What Robinson does on Saturday, he also does during the week. Rodriguez said he quick-whistles plays dead in practice to keep Robinson from getting hit. But Rodriguez has never worried that his quarterbacks get hit too much.
"You'd rather the get hit downfield by little guys than inside by bigger guys," Rodriguez said.
Right quarterback, right system. UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow has coached three Heisman Trophy winners at BYU and USC in West Coast, horizontal passing offenses. Chow spent 27 of LaVell Edwards' 29 seasons at BYU and was offensive coordinator for 18 of those years.
Chow said that all three of his Heisman winners -- Carson Palmer (2002) and Matt Leinart (2004) of USC and Ty Detmer of BYU (1990) -- could be prototypes for the offense. But Palmer and Leinart are the athletic model of NFL passers. Detmer, listed at 6 feet, 175 pounds, didn't fill out that mold. However, of all the outstanding quarterbacks Chow coached at BYU -- from Jim McMahon to Steve Young to Robbie Bosco and on and on -- Detmer was exactly what he wanted.
"He was so dadgum smart," Chow said, "and could throw it."
Detmer started for three seasons (1989-91) at BYU and set 59 NCAA passing records.
"Whether it's the offense or the program or the guys around you," said Detmer, now the coach at St. Andrew's Episcopal high school in Austin, Texas, "that one key piece can be the quarterback."
The offense demands that a quarterback know where each of his receivers will be. When he gets to the line, looks at the defense and recognizes its coverage, he should know before he takes the snap which receiver will be open. Detmer loved it.
"You kind of had control at the line," Detmer said. "You have control of the offense. It was something I had done in high school, real similar to it. It was easy for me to play in that offense. Now you're doing it with more talented players around you. It feels right. The team grows around you."
Sometimes the right fit includes life off the field, too. Detmer and his parents drove west from San Antonio the summer before his senior year of high school. Detmer met with the BYU coaches, then took his fly rod out to the Provo River. He liked what he caught. He came back and committed to the Cougars.
"We thought, 'What do we do?'" Chow said. "He committed to us before we knew much about him. But the guy was so smart and so sharp, whatever skills he had, they showed."
"The whole thing was just right: the school, the way of life up there, the mountains, the outdoors and the football system," Detmer said.
A kid from the Texas hill country found his home in the Wasatch Mountains. A kid from the South Florida beaches is thriving at Michigan. When the fit is right, nothing else matters.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.