Wednesday, November 7, 2012
PSU's Allen Robinson seizes opportunity
By Adam Rittenberg
Allen Robinson's turning point at Penn State might have been the low point for everyone else.
The transfers of several key Penn State players both before and after the NCAA leveled sanctions against the program in July was labeled charitably as a setback and, seemingly more realistically, as a disaster. Arguably no position group suffered more than wide receiver. Top target Justin Brownbolted for Oklahoma. Devon Smith, a returning starter, left the team in June before the sanctions hit and eventually landed at Marshall. The team's top returning pass-catcher was Shawney Kersey with five receptions in 2011 -- and he, too, would eventually depart the team.
Many wondered who would catch passes for Penn State in 2012. Robinson knew the answer. It's why he viewed Penn State's summer turmoil as something different -- an opportunity.
Allen Robinson went from three catches as a freshman to tops in the Big Ten in TD grabs this year.
"As the sanctions and everything else happened, my expectations for myself got a little bit larger," Robinson told ESPN.com. "We had Silas Redd leave, Justin Brown leave. We didn't have that many guys [left], so I definitely knew I'd have a bigger role.
"I just wanted to produce when my number was called."
Has he ever. Robinson not only has cemented himself as Penn State's No. 1 wide receiver, but he's also quite possibly the best in the Big Ten.
The 6-foot-3, 201-pound true sophomore leads the Big Ten in both receptions (57) and receptions per game (6.3) -- nearly a full catch more per game than any other player in the league. He also leads the league in touchdown receptions (8) and trails only Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis in receiving yards per game (76.6). Robinson also holds the team record for receptions by a sophomore and needs just seven receptions to break the Penn State single-season record of 63 held by both Bobby Engram (1995) and O.J. McDuffie (1992).
While senior quarterback Matt McGloin is the most pleasant surprise in Penn State's suddenly potent offense, Robinson, who had just three receptions as a freshman in 2011, isn't far behind.
"I knew I would have to step up for this team if we wanted to win some games," Robinson said.
Robinson notes that the transfers, particularly Brown, increased his ability to make an impact. First-year Lions coach Bill O'Brien sees thinks differently.
"He knew whether Justin Brown was here or not," O'Brien said, "that he was going to be a major part of this offense."
O'Brien knew before anyone else what type of season Robinson could have. Robinson immediately caught O'Brien's eye during winter workouts, weeks after the coach had taken the Penn State job.
"You could see right away that he was a big kid that had very, very smooth athleticism," O'Brien said. "He could come in and out of cuts real well."
Spring practice only increased O'Brien's confidence in the young receiver. O'Brien brought in his offense from the NFL's New England Patriots, but Robinson was a quick study.
Robinson showed the staff he could play both outside receiver spots as well as the slot, unique versatility for such a tall receiver.
"He caught the ball real well in the spring," O'Brien said. "We knew going into the summertime that we had a guy there who had a chance to be really productive for us."
O'Brien tabbed Robinson as a co-starter with Kersey on the post-spring depth chart. Brown and Smith also were named starters at receiver.
Robinson spent much of the summer working with McGloin, named in June as the Lions' starting quarterback. They built a chemistry that has repeatedly shown up in games, particularly in the red zone. Between Sept. 8 and Oct. 20, Robinson caught touchdown passes from McGloin in five of six games, including three against Navy and two against Northwestern.
"Matt has thrown that ball that you guys see in games to me hundreds of times [in workouts]," Robinson said. "Matt definitely trusts me in those situations to go get it, and I definitely trust and believe in him that he's going to make the throw."
Robinson has embraced the detail-oriented approach needed to succeed in O'Brien's offense. While the Lions might not be perfect on every play, "we can try," Robinson said.
O'Brien oversaw one of the NFL's top passing offenses with the Patriots, but he hasn't had many weapons quite like Robinson.
"We had guys in New England that were about 5-foot-9, 5-foot-10 for the most part," O'Brien said. "We had Randy Moss there, but obviously Randy Moss is a Hall of Fame player. Allen is a tall guy, he runs well, he can jump, he's got really good hands, he's very smart. He can do a lot of different things on the route tree. He's not just a vertical threat. He can run underneath things. He can catch screens.
"So he's got a very unique set that really I haven't been around in my career."
Robinson saw a big opportunity after Brown's departure, but he was sorry to see Brown go. Brown took Robinson under his wing when Robinson arrived at Penn State, and the two roomed together on road trips during the 2011 season.
They still talk regularly, mostly not about football, although Robinson noted Brown's strong performance for Oklahoma in last week's victory against Iowa State.
"Justin is still a really good friend," Robinson said.
Brown made his choice, while Robinson opted to stay at Penn State. Not surprisingly, Robinson and other Lions young standouts such as defensive end Deion Barnes have been asked frequently whether they'll stick around State College after the season. Robinson has consistently affirmed his commitment to the program.
"Hearing [questions] about transferring and things like that, it does kind of overwhelm us sometimes, but you have to deal with it," he said. "Coach O’Brien always tells me the opportunities to make big plays are definitely going to be there.
"It definitely gives you some insight on what I could potentially do here."