Robinson embraces role, maintains motivation

Increased confidence. More familiarity with the offense. Better able to recognize defenses and anticipate blitzes.

This is the 2017 version of Andre Robinson, a redshirt sophomore running back for the Penn State football team who started to come into his own last year.

After this year’s Blue-White game —  during which Robinson caught a touchdown — running backs coach Charles Huff described Robinson as an efficient runner, a characterization that Huff said has roots in Robinson’s high school days.

The Mechanicsburg native has a nice feel for the zone, Huff said, noting that Robinson has the ability to know when he needs to “skinny himself” for a few yards, or when he needs to accelerate. Robinson is shifty and mobile, though he possesses the power to score near the goal line, which he did a few times last season.

“He’s not your typical (back) who’s going to run over six people, but he does a good job with a good feel, a good flow, and he’s patient,” Huff said. “He knows when he needs to sink his hips and get a burst and he knows when he’s got to be able to be quicker.”

If the team needs four yards, Robinson’s focus is gaining four yards. If it’s six, then six. And if an opportunity becomes available to do more, Robinson typically seizes it.

And he ended the regular season with something of a breakout game, scoring two touchdowns and finishing with 72 all-purpose yards against Michigan State; one of the scores was a 40-yard reception, a career-high catch and his first receiving touchdown. “That was one of the highlights of the year for me,” Robinson said, “from an individual standpoint, that was pretty cool.” And that it came when the team clinched the Big Ten East Division made it all the better, as Robinson said his performance wouldn’t have been possible without his teammates.

Fast forward to this summer, when Robinson feels more at ease. He was happy with the improvements he made in spring practice, saying that the entire offense looked better than a year ago as the team was installing a new system under offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead —  a scary thought for opponents when you realize that Penn State averaged 38 points per game last season.

During the spring, Robinson said his biggest focus was recognizing defenses, knowing who to pick up on a blitz and identifying where safeties are rotating. Robinson started to understand those concepts last year, and is now starting to have more of a command. Huff and Saquon Barkley have helped Robinson, who’s made it a point to soak up everything, whether he was racking up reps or waiting his turn during spring ball.

“Physically, you can only go so far,” Robinson said. “I feel like my biggest strength is mentally being more confident, knowing what I’m doing, knowing what the defense is doing and why the defense is doing what they’re doing. Things like that, it’s more of a mental standpoint.”

Describing the Michigan State game, Robinson said that Barkley typically had notes from him after a play or series, and Robinson would seek out advice, asking if he made the right cut, for example. He pointed out Barkley’s vision for one reason why the Heisman Trophy candidate has had a big impact on him, saying that Barkley has evolved into a real team leader, whether it’s encouraging teammates during an agility drill or giving Robinson pointers during a game.

“Obviously, he’s the best running back in the country, so there’s a lot that I can learn from him,” Robinson said. “I try to pick his brain as much as possible.”

Robinson speaks with a sense of purpose and maturity, giving each question some thought during a mid-June interview. Spring practice has ended and the season opener is still months away, but Robinson talks like he’s ready now.

That makes sense, given his approach to game day. He doesn't always know how many reps he’ll get, one of the consequences of having the country’s best running back ahead of you on the depth chart. Some games, he’ll have just one or two carries. Then there are other Saturdays, such as against Temple, when Robinson carried six times for 24 yards and a touchdown, receiving some extra playing time after Barkley temporarily left the game after getting dinged up.

“I go in with the mentality that Coach Huff preaches a lot,” Robinson said. “We all need to have the mentality that we’re the starter: take care of your body the whole week like you’re the starter, practice all week like you’re the starter, and watch film all week like you’re the starter.”

That mindset is important, Huff said, “because the standard is the same, to go in there, break tackles, get YAC (yards after contact), make big plays and put the ball in the end zone.”

Robinson scored five times last season and added a score in this year’s Blue-White game, a nine-yard reception from Tommy Stevens. Huff said the best thing that Robinson can do (along with other backs Mark Allen and Miles Sanders) “is work their tail off every single day to be the best they can be.” Then when their opportunity comes —  whenever it does —  they’ll be ready.

Huff said when the opportunity comes is the unknown variable, “that’s the one thing in life that none of us have control over,” he said. Whenever that situation does present itself, chances are Robinson will be ready.

Mostly because he plans on it.

“I just want to continue what I’ve been doing and be an efficient runner,” Robinson said. “That I can come in and the team and offense not lose a step, and still be able to produce the same way the offense does with (Barkley) or anyone else in that running back position.”

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