UNIVERSITY PARK — After learning of Neiko Robinsons oral commitment to Penn State, Northview (Fla.) High School head coach Sid Wheatley participated in a broad recruiting conversation with a member of his staff.
This is my personal view and I told my assistant coach this I bet hes not their last commitment from Florida this year, Wheatley said. They are kind of getting involved down here.
Penn State and Florida. The words dont enter the same football sentence unless the topic is a bowl game.
Robinson doesnt know whether his decision started a trend, but he knows his life quickly changed when Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof visited the Florida Panhandle.
The 5-foot-11, 170-pound safety transferred from Flomaton (Ala.) High School to Northview earlier this year to play with childhood friends. Robinsons highlight tape made its way to the Lasch complex, and Roof, a Georgia native who worked as Auburns defensive coordinator from 2009-11, decided to visit one of Northviews spring practices.
When my coach first told me Ted Roof was visiting, I was like, The coach who was at Auburn when they won the national championship? Robinson said. My coach said that hes at Penn State, and hes coming to see you. I told him, Stop playing. I didnt think anything like that could happen to me. Sure enough it was him that visited. It put a smile on my face.
Conversations between Robinson and Penn State turned serious last week. By Sunday night, Robinson had orally committed to the Nittany Lions.
Penn State corralled Robinson before other major schools. North Texas and UAB had offered Robinson a scholarship, but Wheatley said Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett visited Northview twice to watch Robinson.
Robinson will become the Nittany Lions first signee from Florida since John Wilson signed his paperwork in 2001. Linebacker Josh Matzkin, a walk-on from Tampa, made Penn States roster from 2007-09.
Robinson had a big junior year, compiling 93 tackles and returning three interceptions for touchdowns. His play helped Flomaton finish 11-2. His on-field demeanor fits Roofs aggressive defense.
I like it when somebody runs a post or crossing route because I like to hit, he said. I like the physical part of the game, and it helps with the mental part of my game. I like to intimidate somebody and get in their head. I try to make a statement when I hit.
Wheatley said Robinson displays split personalities.
Neiko is a different guy on the field than he is off the field, Wheatley said. Hes a very quiet guy, very laid-back, good mannered and soft spoken. When he steps on the field and the lights go on, hes very, very competitive. He enjoys the game of football.
Robinson is a typical southern teenager. He speaks with a drawl, loves football, plays basketball and fishes for catfish and bass. He politely addressed a reporter as sir throughout an interview Wednesday night. His twin brother, Neino, is a Division I basketball recruit. The family lives along the rural Florida-Alabama border. Pensacola is the closest city to Robinsons hometown of Century.
Its laid-back around here, he said. Its a great place to raise a family. Theres not all the crime and violence you would have in the big city.
The area is filled with football talent. Former Heisman Trophy winner Trent Richardson hails from Pensacola.
Florida produced more than 357 Division I recruits in 2011. Pennsylvania, by comparison, produced 61. Florida has eight classifications. Northview plays in the smallest one, but the Chiefs compete against bigger schools in the regular season.
In Florida, there are so many athletes on the field at one time, Robinson said. Theres speed everywhere. You will rarely see a great lineman, but you will always see great athletes at the skill positions. Its a battle.
The recruiting battles are fierce. Florida State, Florida and Miami dont need to leave the border to construct explosive teams, and almost every top-25 program dispatches a coach or two to the state each spring. Three Penn State coaches Roof, assistant head coach Stan Hixon and defensive line coach Larry Johnson scoured Florida in the spring evaluation period.
We talked about it as a staff and to our knowledge we dont remember Penn State coming around this area, Wheatley said. Thats definitely a good thing. There are some good players here.
Robinson relishes the idea of not being the only Florida native on future rosters.
It would be good if Penn State could recruit like an SEC team, he said. To me, nobody would beat them.
Guy Cipriano covers Penn State football for the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy