The player Tom Izzo was watching could do it all.
No. 1 cut on a dime, changed directions faster than any other player. He had a vertical leap that was among the best. His shooting was pinpoint accurate, his speed up and down the court was second to none.
By default, his instinct was to drive the basket. His defense was impenetrable.
Izzo, Michigan State’s longtime basketball coach, was impressed and approached St. Mary’s Prep coach George Porritt after the game ended to inquire about the unknown senior two-guard.
“Who the heck is this kid?” Izzo asked Porritt.
“Robinson. Allen Robinson,” Porritt revealed. “I said, I told you Coach, that kid’s a player.”
While Izzo may have caught on later than others, Robinson had led a remarkable career for Porritt on the hardwood at St. Mary’s Prep in Orchard Lake, Mich.. Robinson saved his best performance for his penultimate game.
Trailing Catholic Central by nine points in the Class A regional championship game, St. Mary’s Prep was lifted single handedly by Robinson, who scored 17 consecutive fourth-quarter points. Robinson finished with 20 of his team’s final 23 points and St. Mary’s Prep won, 49-48.
“Allen was very explosive,” Porritt said. “People that saw him play during the middle to the end of his career thought that he could be a Division I, probably a Big Ten basketball player.”
But Robinson’s basketball career ended after St. Mary’s Prep was bounced from the playoffs by Bay City Western in the next round.
Not surprisingly to Porritt, who also coached Robinson in football, now his former star pupil has a chance to do something special in the sport he picked up as a second love.
With one catch in today’s game against Indiana at Beaver Stadium, Robinson, now a sophomore wideout for the Nittany Lions, will become the single-season receptions leader in program history.
“It means a lot,” Robinson said. “I always think back. It seems like I was just in high school not too long ago. It just seems like everything is moving so fast.”
Competitive rootsGrowing up in Detroit in a large family, Robinson was always around his five male cousins. Most of them started playing youth basketball as soon as they were eligible.
Robinson was no exception.
As a five-year-old, it was Robinson setting screens for one cousin or feeding a bounce pass to another.
Soon, they grew older, got bigger and took on pee wee football, all wanting to follow in the footsteps of the oldest of the bunch — Kevin Glenn.
Still a youngster, Robinson and his family would often rent a charter bus and make the 6 1/2 trip to Normal, Ill., to watch Glenn, then the starting quarterback at Illinois State.
Glenn posted sturdy career numbers for the Redbirds, setting 25 school records in the process. Eventually, Glenn signed in the Canadian Football League where he’s spent the last 12 seasons.
Now, Glenn is preparing to start for the Calgary Stampeders in Sunday’s Western Conference finale against the BC Lions. The winner advances to the Grey Cup. Despite his busy schedule in Western Canada, Glenn has kept up with Robinson’s quick rise from unknown depth player to the Big Ten’s most dangerous wide receiver this season.
“It’s really fulfilling for me to actually see that, to see Al be Al, and see where he came from as my little cousin,” Glenn said. “He’s bigger than me now.”
Glenn got a glimpse of how much his little cousin has grown this summer when the duo got together for two weeks in Detroit. Glenn was home during the offseason and Robinson had a two-week break between summer class semesters at Penn State.
Robinson could think of no better way then to spend the two weeks working with a pro quarterback who’s thrown for more that 36,000 yards and 204 touchdown passes in a long CFL career.
“I just wanted to keep working,” Robinson, fresh out of Penn State’s spring practices, said. “I was able to contact him and he told me he was throwing three days a week so I was able to get out there and catch some balls.”
Glenn set up a mini camp at Oak Park High School that attracted a number of local high school players in addition to college players looking for a few extra summer repetitions.
Robinson spent most of his days with Glenn with a quiet, studious demeanor. They worked on timing for every route either could think of. They practiced footwork drills. Glenn would throw fade patterns and Robinson would work his way up into the air to catch the ball at its highest point.
Glenn would oftentimes throw bad balls, or ones slightly off the mark that Robinson would have to adjust to catch. Reading coverages, beating press formations and lifting weights were all included as daily activities on the Oak Park campus.
“He’s one of those athletes and players that really takes coaching. That’s what I actually saw this offseason,” Glenn said. “When he comes to work out, he was coming to work out. He wasn’t taking off, maybe jaw-jacking around and not taking it seriously. He takes every rep that he does seriously like it’s his last rep.”
Soon, Robinson was called back for the second summer semester at Penn State, where he resumed similar workouts with his Penn State teammates.
Breaking up the band
Shortly after a few personnel shufflings by Bill O’Brien and Penn State’s new coaching staff, the NCAA handed down its punishments to Penn State resulting from the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
No position group was hit harder than Robinson’s, and no player lost as many close friends or potential mentors than Robinson.
Contributors from last season — Devon Smith, Shawney Kersey and Curtis Drake — were all gone for personal reasons. Derek Moye, a player Robinson is still regularly in contact with, graduated.
When the rule was applied that any Penn State player could transfer out of the program without losing eligibility, Robinson’s best friend, Rob Bolden, took advantage.
,Bolden, who Robinson attended high school with in Detroit, transferred to LSU.
Soon thereafter, Silas Redd left for USC and Justin Brown, who Robinson looked at as a role model, was off to Oklahoma.
“It was hard seeing Justin leave, too, because once being the youngest guy in the group last year, hanging around Derek Moye, Justin Brown, Devon Smith, Shawney Kersey, Curtis Drake, it’s just different seeing all of those guys leave that you played with last year,” Robinson said. “Justin is a guy that I really took some things after as far as on the field and off the field. I think it was definitely shocking to see Justin leave.”
Robinson himself was a hot commodity. He said he got a dozen calls from other Division-I coaches trying to get him to leave Penn State.
With Matt McGloin being named the starting quarterback by O’Brien, Robinson realized Bolden had a better shot to play elsewhere. But suddenly, with all the unexpected turnover at his position, Robinson learned cutting ties wasn’t for him.
He’d have a chance to make something happen this season.
“It was a little tough but at the end of the day I had to realize, we were in two different situations,” Robinson said. “It was best for me to be here and best for (Bolden) to be at LSU. It was kind of hard to see my friend leave, but I think at the end of the day, we both knew.”
It is important to remember Robinson, a player with massive, soft hands who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs in at just over 200 pounds still has two season’s of eligibility ahead of him.
It’s probably the reason Penn State wide receivers coach Stan Hixon gets nearly giddy when discussing Robinson’s progress thus far.
“He is nowhere near as good as he is going to be,” Hixon said of the player who leads the Big Ten in catches (63) and yards (786).
Robinson attributes his ascension to his increased opportunities, chances he realized would come to fruition this season. He took all the necessary steps to be ready when they got here.
“I knew I was going to have to step up to an even bigger role,” Robinson said. “I guess it’s a little shocking, but not really. I think I really have tried to prepare myself for this situation. When I became the No. 1 guy, I would still have to play and produce. So I really prepared myself for this.”
Teams used to not worry so much about the player wearing No. 8. Now they zero in on that number on nearly every passing down. It wasn’t until Penn State’s game against Temple in Week 4 that Robinson felt the eyes of his opponents all converge on him.
The Owls started pressing him and kept a safety manned-up on him for much of the game.
Most recently, Nebraska shaded its cornerbacks to the outside of Robinson and brought a safety up closer to his inside to try and keep him from breaking any routes toward the middle of the field.
Robinson still led all receivers with 97 yards on six catches.
Robinson’s motto is, there’s always a way to beat a certain coverage. If he can’t do it himself, the attention he draws from a defense will allow other players to catch on.
Take Brandon Moseby-Felder, Kyle Carter and Matt Lehman, for example. All have had career years in O’Brien’s offense. Moseby-Felder has come on strong recently with 23 catches for 353 yards since the Big Ten season started.
“I think that a lot of guys have started to come along,” Robinson said. “I know Brandon Felder has had some really big games. The same thing with Kyle Carter, Jesse James, those guys really have stepped up with their opportunities by them being single-covered or covered not as much.”
Robinson knows he’ll face a stiff coverage from Indiana and Wisconsin, the two teams remaining on Penn State’s schedule.
The odds he’s held without a catch are low. He’s been held to less than five catches just once this season and in that game, Robinson managed to snag three passes.
He’s not counting on anything, however. Mildly superstitious, Robinson might knock on wood. Instead, he’s trying to figure out which headband to wear for today’s game — blue or white?
“I wore a blue one for the first two games but we lost the first two,” Robinson said. “Then I switched to white. And then we went on a five-game winning streak. After we lost to Ohio State, I took off the white headband and I haven’t worn one since then.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @traviswjohnson_.