Back in 2010, when Gus Malzahn was the offensive coordinator at Auburn and helped recruit Greg Robinson from Thibodaux High in Louisiana, he couldn’t help but marvel at the teenager’s exceptional athleticism.
Robinson was a guard but hadn’t even played on the offensive line until he was a junior; he had been playing on defense. He was raw at the position, but incredibly powerful.
“I knew he was a special athlete,” said Malzahn. “He was unbelievably athletic. He was playing guard, and his athleticism and strength — he had the ‘wow’ factor. We knew he had a chance to be a special player.”
After Robinson red-shirted in 2011, Malzahn departed to become head coach at Arkansas State for the 2012 season. Meanwhile, Robinson flourished as a left tackle at Auburn, making 11 starts in his first season.
When Malzahn returned as Auburn’s head coach last season, he couldn’t wait to run the offense behind Robinson, who had grown into a 6-foot-5-inch, 320-pound punisher.
Nearly four years later, the very same freakish athleticism that captivated Malzahn and the Auburn coaching staff is having the same mesmerizing effect on NFL teams, as the sophomore is likely to be the top tackle selected in next week’s NFL Draft.
Each year, it seems, more and more young players consider themselves ready to compete at the highest level. This year, a record 98 underclassmen declared for the draft, raising again a question general managers face every year: Do they go with the seasoned, more polished prospect that is deemed more “NFL-ready”? Or do they take the prospect with the sensational yet raw talent?
There is no doubt that Robinson is still raw, after playing almost exclusively in run-blocking schemes in Malzahn’s fast-paced offense.
Last season, he helped pave Auburn’s road to the BCS championship game, clearing the way for Tre Mason and Nick Marshall as the Tigers rushed for a program-record 4,596 yards and 48 touchdowns.
For teams eager to take a left tackle and protect the quarterback’s blind side, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews is appealing because of his ability to both pass- and run-block. In the pass-happy NFL, Matthews might seem like a safer pick.
“Matthews is not a finished product, but as close to finished as you’ll see coming out of college,” said ESPN draft expert Todd McShay. “If I had to bet on one guy, he’d be on the real short list of guys I’m betting is going to be a good starter in the league for a long time.”
But according to McShay, Robinson is too athletic and too powerful to pass up — worth every bit of the gamble.
At February’s scouting combine, Robinson weighed in at 332 pounds and clocked 4.92 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He also completed 32 repetitions in the bench press.
“You just don’t find many guys like this,” McShay said. “He’s one of those picks that you just turn to your offensive line coach and say, ‘Figure it out.’
“It’s a cab ride to get around him. The most impressive part of his game is his explosive power. After watching 60 or 70 offensive linemen this year, and going back to watch the top guys, there’s nobody in at least the last eight drafts that have the power he has.
“He’s the most dominant point-of-attack player on the offensive line I’ve ever evaluated.”
McShay, who has been evaluating players since 2002, said there are still plenty of things Robinson needs to work on, the biggest being his hand placement and how often he holds defenders.
When Robinson is blocking, he doesn’t shy away from contact. He doesn’t shy away from difficult questions, either. When asked at the combine about areas of improvement, he vowed to get better.
“I understand about the run blocking because I worked on it a lot,” Robinson told reporters. “I’ve also worked the pass. It was limited. I feel I’m decent enough and I will prove myself if there’s anybody doubting that I can’t pass-block.
“I’m not at full potential right now. I still have a lot to go. Like the guys they have ahead of me, like Jake Matthews, he started since he was a freshman. That’s just something I feel I need to prove.”
Going pro early was part of a promise Robinson made to help his family. One of seven children, Robinson is determined to help his mother support the family. His father died in 2012 and Robinson has two younger siblings that he would love to help put through college.
“It would be a blessing if I could help my mom put them through college,” he said. “That would just be something in my heart that I would love to do. As far as my older brothers and sisters, I’m going to help them as much as I can because they have kids.
“I’m going to help my family as much as I can.”
Once Robinson signs with an NFL team, he will certainly be positioned to help. Aside from Robinson, there will be nobody happier about that than Malzahn.
“His goal when he came [to Auburn] was to take care of his family,” Malzahn said.
“As his head coach, I’m tickled to death he’s going to be able to do it. It’s a common-sense thing, the timing was right, and he’s going to have a bright future.”Anthony Gulizia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gulizia_a.