SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -Two years into Michael Robinson's transformation from a star college quarterback to an NFL running back, the former Penn State star still can't shake a few old habits.
For instance, most second-year backup ball carriers don't want to know every player's role on every offensive play. Remembering a running back's responsibilities is hard enough - but Robinson has a thirst for encyclopedic knowledge during the San Francisco 49ers' team meetings.
``He wants to see the big picture,'' 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. ``Even on some passing plays, Michael keeps himself in tune with what the routes are. ... Michael still could be our third quarterback if something happens by injury. Things like that happen.''
Though he played several positions at Penn State, Robinson acknowledges he still thinks like a quarterback sometimes. That's no surprise, given his high-profile success when he finally became a full-time signal-caller during the school's Orange Bowl-winning season in 2005.
But more than a year after he happily agreed to the 49ers' plan to turn him into a full-time running back, Robinson is getting the hang of his new job - just in time to make a strong push to be Pro Bowl star Frank Gore's backup.
``Last year, I didn't know what I wanted to be,'' Robinson said. ``It's a whole lot different when you're scrambling in the pocket, as opposed to getting the ball on a handoff. Right now, I'm just learning how to play faster, make decisions quick, and when I make decisions, trust what I feel and go with it.''
With Gore sitting out the 49ers' first three preseason games with a broken hand, Robinson and Maurice Hicks will get most of the playing time in San Francisco's exhibition opener against Denver on Monday night. The two backups are in competition for the top job behind the defending NFC rushing champion.
Gore walked around the 49ers' training complex Friday without his removable cast, but held his broken right hand gingerly. Nolan said Gore still might play in the 49ers' exhibition finale at San Diego on Aug. 30, but won't see much contact until next month.
``They already know I'm a playmaker,'' Robinson said. ``I just want to show them that if they need me - if something ever happened to Frank, God forbid - they can count on me. It's hard to get to the level that Frank is. He's a great runner, but I don't want them to have to change any game plans.''
Robinson made history with his versatility at Penn State, where he became nationally famous and might have saved coach Joe Paterno's job while quarterbacking the Nittany Lions' 11-1 team that won the Big Ten title in 2005.
Robinson is the only player to throw for more than 1,000 yards and run for 1,000 more in Penn State's rich football history, playing quarterback, halfback and all three receiver positions while also returning punts. He started 17 games at quarterback, six at halfback and five more at receiver - often with little warning.
``I've never practiced at running back,'' said Robinson, who rushed for 1,637 yards and 20 touchdowns in his career. ``In college, I didn't know I was going to be the starting running back until maybe the Thursday or Friday before a game. I never practiced at it. I would go out there and just play.''
The 100th overall pick in last year's draft had no problem playing a new role with the 49ers. Robinson played sparingly on offense and special teams as a rookie in San Francisco - and he even threw his first NFL pass in the 49ers' finale at Denver last season, but his toss to Hicks on a fake punt fell incomplete.
Robinson's energy is focused on carrying the ball these days, learning all the minor details that separate college stars from NFL greats.
``When a quarterback runs, most of the time it's just to make something out of nothing,'' Nolan said, describing Robinson's specialty when he plowed through Big Ten defenses. ``When a running back runs, there's an active equation that's being set up. ... He's a big guy, but he lowers his pad. What Michael is working on is lowering his eyes so he can see what it is, as opposed to freelancing.''
Ever the versatile team player, Robinson also knows he probably hasn't thrown his last NFL pass - but don't tell the rest of the league.
``Shhhhhh,'' Robinson said with a grin. ``Hopefully that's something that can be in the making. We practiced it a lot last year. ... I throw. It's kind of like riding a bike. You get rusty, but you don't exactly lose it.''

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