Great seasons from true freshmen in the high-stakes world of college football are rare, especially at big-time programs like USC.
Even more rare: True freshmen following up surprise debut performances with superb sophomore seasons.
USC sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey is rare.
Robey, all 5-8 and 172 pounds of him, has spent the eight months since the end of his freshman season working on refining certain aspects of his game to silence critics and prove to Trojans coach Lane Kiffin and his staff that he can be not just a capable college corner but a certifiable star.
Through two weeks-plus of fall camp, both parties say he’s succeeded. Robey tackles differently now, with more focus on the task at hand and better angles to the ball. He was always a student of the game, but he’s an honor student now, one with an interest in all subjects. He’s not an incredible tackler just yet, but he’s improving – and he’ll keep improving, too.
“Tightening up all those little things made me take my game to another level,” Robey said Wednesday. “And it’s about the little things and paying attention to detail, going in the film room and studying more film, getting in a relationship with the younger guys and making sure they understand what they have to do.
“But as far as me stepping up my role, I feel like I’ve made an impression on other guys and that’s what made me step up.”
Robey was always the type of player who took noticeable enjoyment in the teaching and learning process. By this point in last year’s camp, former USC corner Shareece Wright was already enamored with his then-roommate’s acute interest in the playbook and ability to pick it up right upon his arrival.
"Nickell Robey's been extremely good," says his position coach, Willie Mack Garza. "He comes to work every day, pushes himself and pushes the other guys around him up to his standard. He's got great leadership skills in dealing with guys like Ryan Henderson and Isiah Wiley.
“He's just a complete young man -- outside of football, even."
Most players who experience success at the college level are also promoted for their commendable character, whether or not it’s actually true. Some players are deserving of that praise; some aren’t.
Robey clearly is.
"I'm not saying he's the player Troy Polamalu was, but he has the same attitude and the same work ethic," Kiffin said of Robey last week, in what made for of the more memorable quotes of his tenure at USC. “I think he’s just exactly the way we describe a Trojan, what we’re looking for — from academics to handling himself off the field to weight room to training to nutrition to practice habits,” Kiffin said.
“I could be mistaken, but I can’t recall the last time he even missed a rep. He’s one of the first guys out here, one of the last guys to leave.”
As of Wednesday, Robey said he couldn’t remember a missed rep either. But he could remember other mistakes he’s made easily, and that’s another thing Robey’s always done: work on his weaknesses.
“I know I have to get better in my tackling,” Robey said. “We have to do a greater job tackling because that’s what we struggled on last year, so we really emphasized that – myself personally and the secondary in general.”
Those tend to come hand in hand. This USC Trojans secondary will depend heavily on the success of Robey and junior safety T.J. McDonald this season, and that’s not an issue.
Garza expects that to pay off, surely and quickly.
"Nickell is unique," Garza said this week. "I mean, I'm sure there are some guys like him, but I think that Nickell Robey is a unique, special young man with special qualities.
“He's doing an unbelievable job, and I don't think you find that very often, especially in this day and age.”