When Allen Robinson returned home to Michigan for a few weeks in the offseason, he could have kicked back, taken it easy, soaked up praise and reveled in his accolades.
That would’ve been the easy thing to do for the junior wide receiver who spent 2012 ascending from virtual unknown to breakout offensive threat — a player every opposing defense schemed to stop toward the middle and latter phases of last season.
But that’s not in Robinson’s makeup.
“Allen knows that he’s very talented but he don’t rest on that,” Penn State receivers coach Stan Hixon said. “He wants to be the best that he can be and in all my years of coaching receivers, he is by far one of the most competitive guys I have been around. I’ve been around a lot of good receivers and some of them, they don’t go as hard in practice as they go in the game. But Allen wants to win every single drill, practice or game.”
So Robinson went to work in the offseason, catching as many passes as he could, running as many routes as the daylight hours would allow. He immersed himself in his playbook — determined to be a force from different spots on the field as opposed to just split out wide, where he was used primarily last season.
Robinson also wanted to help his team win in the season opener even if that meant he had to lend a hand from the sideline. Robinson was banned from playing in the first half against Syracuse — head coach Bill O’Brien insisted on keeping the infraction just between him and the star receiver. Robinson could’ve sulked and hung his head.
Nope. That’s not what he’s all about either.
Instead, Robinson was engaged without his helmet on, following true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg around the sideline offering any advice he could to help ease the rookie into his first career start at MetLife Stadium.
“It was a learning experience. Not being able to play the first half, I was just trying to help my teammates out in any way possible, just going out in the first half, trying to use my brain instead of my legs to help us out,” Robinson said. “As a player or as a teammate, that’s what you’ve got to be. If something’s not going for you, I wasn’t playing the first half, so just trying to stay active. At the end of the day we’re a team.”
So far this season, Robinson’s teammates have done their best to help him out by providing Hackenberg with other suitable targets in multiple-receiver sets. By spreading the ball around — Hackenberg has already completed passes to 12 different players — the Penn State offense has kept defenses honest in their quest to prevent Robinson from taking over.
Robinson leads the team with 14 catches for 262 yards and two touchdowns, but the smooth-running Brandon Felder also has come open, catching 12 passes for 96 yards. Speedy underclassmen, redshirt freshmen Eugene Lewis and true freshman Richy Anderson, have been involved while Alex Kenney continues to provide speed from the slot. Sophomore Matt Zanellato, a big target at 6-foot-3 and 203 pounds, has already exceeded his entire output from last season with three catches for 38 yards, and true freshman Gregg Garrity became the seventh receiver to play when he entered in the fourth quarter against Eastern Michigan.
O’Brien, who will face his former mentor George O’Leary when the UCF Knights (2-0) visit Beaver Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday, said it is fun to come up with all the wideout combinations Penn State uses.
“We have a lot of different personnel groupings, so we try to get as many guys into that rotation,” O’Brien said. “Some of the personnel groupings are two, some of them are three, some of them are four and some of them are five wide receiver groupings, which we haven't even used yet. We try to make sure that we're rotating guys in and out, and I think that helps a lot. It gets guys on the field that are good players. It helps morale because a lot of guys are playing and I think a lot of different guys have caught passes from Christian this year, which is good.”
A lot of those passes have been of the short variety and a lot have gone to Robinson and Felder, who have ripped off damaging runs after catches on receiver screens. Penn State could utilize its short passing game to help Hackenberg establish a rhythm early against a UCF secondary that boasts two sound-tackling cornerbacks in Jacoby Glenn and Jordan Ozerities and hard-hitting safeties in Clayton Geathers and Brandon Alexander.
“They’re big, physical defense. We’ve been preparing for that this week,” Robinson said. “We go up against a big, physical defense every day so with them challenging us I think that’ll get us ready for this game.”
Penn State has used it’s NASCAR package — a no-huddle offense — sparingly so far. It could come into play against UCF early as O’Brien has preached a need to start fast. With young receivers such as Lewis, Anderson and Zanellato getting more comfortable operating without a huddle and Hackenberg growing more confident in his ability to know what each receiver is going to do off the snap, it will likely be a game plan Penn State employs more consistently.
Hixon said Robinson and Felder have been instrumental in helping the younger receivers — and Hackenberg — get acclimated to the nuances of playing without a huddle.
The art of running NASCAR doesn’t necessarily depend on formations being perfect. Rather, its success and a team’s ability to use it requires all the receivers to know what their assignments are from each position, whether it be in tight, in the slot or split out wide.
After all, what’s the point of running a hurry-up offense if the quarterback has to wait for one of his targets to get in a specific position on the other side of the formation relative to where that receiver wound up at the end of the previous play?
“When you’re going fast you have to think fast,” Hixon said. “Speed is more important than sometimes the formation. We just want to get in a fast mode and I think the more that he has been in that situation, the easier it gets. The more you play, the more the game slows down for you.”
It has slowed down for Robinson, but after this season it could speed up considerably.
While Robinson has prepared himself for an encore season to 2012, which saw him win the Richter-Howard Award as the Big Ten’s top receiver, he could be ready to play big, physical defenses on Sunday sooner rather than later.
Hixon, who’s coached multiple NFL draft picks in his nearly 30-year career, said Robinson has all the tools now to go pro. Hixon compared Robinson to Michael Clayton, a wideout Hixon coached at LSU who went on to become the 15th-overall selection in the 2004 NFL Draft.
One difference between the two? Hixon said Robinson is even more competitive than Clayton.
Whether he’ll stick around to continue aiding Penn State’s efforts will be a decision Robinson will make later, Hixon said.
“I think he’s definitely going to play at that level because in my years of coaching wide receivers, he’s one of the best if not the best, receiver I have had — and I had some first-rounder, second-rounders over the years,” Hixon said. “When the time comes, he’s going to be ready because he has the work ethic, I think he has the athletic ability. He has the ball skills and he has the physical toughness. He’s going to be a pro player. When he and his family decide to make that move, that’s up to them.”