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Nickell Robey, more than a nickel?

8/13/2010

On first glance, it looks like a match made in football heaven.

The Trojans need a nickel back behind the likely pairing of Shareece Wright and Torin Harris and true freshman cornerback/human-bowling-ball Nickell Robey needs to get on the field.

So Nickell will play nickel, right?

Not so fast. Robey's dynamic play through the first 10 practices of camp has had coaches raving -- so much so that on Thursday, Lane Kiffin indicated that Robey is starting to play his way into a competition with Harris for the starting spot across from the entrenched Wright.

It would be a surprise, yes, but the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Robey has already surprised many observers in his career with his tenacity on and off the field.

A product of Frostproof, Fla., Robey committed to Georgia -- where his cousin, Carlton Thomas, currently plays -- during his senior season but decommitted when the Bulldogs fired their defensive co-coordinator (and Robey's primary recruiter) Willie Martinez in December.

After flirting with West Virginia, Virginia Tech and South Florida, Robey chose the Trojans in a mild surprise on Signing Day in February. Later that month, his mother passed away in Florida, leading to internet speculation that Robey would choose to stay in the Southeast.

But Robey arrived at the start of summer workouts, participated in throwing sessions and quietly gathered a following among his teammates as a future shutdown corner. When fall camp began, Robey quickly found his way into the rotation at defensive backfield with an array of punishing hits on taller and bigger players.

The thing is, even at 5-foot-8, Robey is supremely athletic. Reports of his vertical leap range from 40 to 42 inches; his 40-yard dash time has been reported to be the in 4.4s.

"He's a great athlete," says Wright, his roommate for fall camp. "He studies his playbook every night; he's always asking me questions. He's ready to play."

Robey is not yet allowed to speak to the media, per USC policies concerning freshmen. But Wright, who saw some time in nickel packages during his freshman season in 2006, said Thursday that the 18-year-old Robey is very much inspired by his mother's passing.

"I took him in since he got here and Coach Kiffin talked to me about him," Wright said. "That would inspire anybody, to have that happen in your life. I took that as part of my role, to bring him in."

And whether Robey earns the starting spot at corner or not, it appears he will have a definite spot in the nickel defense waiting for him in September -- barring a late surge from Brian Baucham. But Robey's recent success in the return game had Kiffin saying Thursday that he could also play his way onto the field there.

Says Wright: "He didn't come here to sit on the bench, I know that much."