After a brief but successful stint in 2004 as the Texas defensive coordinator, Greg Robinson wound up in Michigan calling defense by way of Syracuse.
Robinson’s two Michigan defenses, however, turned out to be among the worst in Wolverines history.
On Sunday, Texas coach Mack Brown tabbed Robinson to turn around a beleaguered Longhorns defense that surrendered a record number of rushing yards (550) in a 19-point loss at BYU. The abysmal performance resulted in Brown firing defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
The question now, which will likely determine Brown’s future in Austin, is will Robinson do any better?
Brown, and his players, indicated strongly Monday that he would.
“I think Greg has a track record that's as good as anybody in this country,” Brown said. “Kids gravitate to him. He just makes kids play better.”
The problem with that is Robinson’s track record since leaving Texas has not been good. And within the past decade, his kids have not played well. In fact, since coordinating the Texas defense in 2004, Robinson has not overseen a top-50 defense.
Robinson’s failure in Syracuse was as a head coach. The Orange went 3-26 in the Big East during his tenure.
But Robinson’s failure in Michigan was as a defensive coordinator. Under Robinson in 2010, the Wolverines ranked last in the Big Ten in total defense (451 yards per game), scoring defense (35.2 points per game) and pass defense (262 yards per game). Robinson was fired after that season along with head coach Rich Rodriguez.
Monday, Brown exonerated Robinson for those failures, countering those Wolverine defenses were bad because they “had really bad players.”
Only, with many of those same “bad” players, the Wolverines jumped all the way to sixth nationally in scoring defense and 17th in total defense under coordinator Greg Mattison the following season. And with virtually the same front seven that Robinson had the season before, the Wolverines went from allowing 189 yards a game on the ground to 132 in Mattison’s first year.
“When he went to Michigan, they weren't very good,” Brown said. “We have good players on defense. We just have to play better.”
The Longhorns did have good players during Robinson’s first spell in Austin. Linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Michael Huff were unanimous All-Americans and first-round picks. Several other defenders from that 2004 team enjoyed success in the NFL.
Robinson won’t have that kind of talent to work with this time around. Sure, defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and linebacker Jordan Hicks are nice players. And defensive backs Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom have pro potential. Yet, even as Texas piles up recruiting classes that are the envy of college football, there are no surefire All-Americans on this defense. And, at least according to one NFL scout who watched the Longhorns practice in person during the preseason, no future first-rounders, either.
Brown indicated Diaz’s schemes were shaky at BYU, and the results obviously reflected that. But was the defensive collapse in Provo purely scheme-related?
Former Longhorns linebacker Drew Kelson, who was a freshman during Robinson’s 2004 season, thinks Texas’ defensive issues go way deeper than poor play calling or scheming.
“We lost seven games while I was at Texas, and it wasn’t just because the coaches called perfect plays,” Kelson said. “Look at who we had when I was playing. I had to move to linebacker to get on the field because we had five or six DBs who were NFL-caliber guys.
“The last few years we haven’t had the players to help bail out the coaches. When the schemes or X's or O's haven’t been right on point, you’ve seen [big offensive plays]. The players need to have the mentality of being relentless, making something happen regardless of the play call, regardless if the scheme is perfect and wanting to fight to live another down. That’s what we need.”
Installing a mentality that has been missing from the Texas defense lately on top of implementing his scheme is something Robinson will have to accomplish in little time.
“Obviously he’s overloaded,” Brown said.
Kelson, however, spoke highly of Robinson, and recalled his energy and enthusiasm.
“He was kind of quirky,” Kelson said, “but it worked for us.”
When at Texas, Robinson also had a flair for making solid halftime adjustments -- something Diaz seemingly failed to do against BYU. During the 2004 regular season, the Longhorns outscored their opponents 105-3 in third quarters, smacking of big-time halftime adjustments.
“We know [Robinson’s] experience, we know of the things he's done in his past, and you know whatever he's saying has worked,” Byndom said. “That will be the biggest thing for us, his credibility.
“We know whatever he says, it has worked before.”
The Longhorns are banking on it working again in Austin. Even if it didn't in Michigan.