Bill Hass on the ACC: Matt Robinson's Experience, Leadership Are No Joke
Oct. 16, 2008
By Bill Hass
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – As a sixth-year player in college football at the ripe old age of 24, Matt Robinson was prepared for the inevitable teasing from his Wake Forest teammates.
They call him “Grandpa.” They ask to see his AARP and Social Security cards. Keith Henry, who coaches Wake’s defensive ends, reserves an easy chair for him in team meetings.
“It’s amazing that they still make jokes almost daily about it,” Robinson said, shaking his head. “It’s like the 100th joke this month and everybody still laughs. They have a good time with it and I laugh it off, so it’s all good.”
Nobody is laughing about the way he’s playing, however. After missing the 2006 season with a knee injury and not playing up to his standards in 2007, Robinson has regained much of the form he showed in his first two seasons. In 2004 and 2005, he used his quickness to beat blockers off the line and either pressure the quarterback or grab ball-carriers for a loss.
Last Thursday in the Deacons’ 12-7 win over Clemson, Robinson was constantly in the Tigers’ backfield. He was credited with three tackles and no sacks but twice forced quarterback Cullen Harper to run into sacks recorded by lineman John Russell.
“Coaches call that my ‘almost-sacks’ and since I’m leading the country in those, I want to keep those going so no one can catch me,” Robinson said with a grin after the game. “What’s the fun in getting a sack if I can get eight ‘almost-ones’? (Russell) went off to celebrate by himself and we came off to the sideline and I told him ‘next time you better celebrate with me.’”
Robinson does have one sack to his credit among his 13 tackles this season, bringing his career total to 8½.
“He’s been in some situations this year where he’s been close,” Henry said. “He had the guy wrapped up and the guy gets out of his hands or he’s had the guy by the shirt and the guy gets away from him. I keep telling him it’s going to come, and it’s going to come soon.”
Coach Jim Grobe recognizes Robinson’s contributions as a disruptive force.
“We thought Matt played really, really well against Clemson,” Grobe said. “He was in the backfield quite a bit, he put good pressure on the quarterback and I thought that when the ball was handed off or when the ball was thrown that he was one of those guys that was always full-speed getting to the football. That kind of stuff becomes contagious.”
Robinson is part of a veteran defense that has spurred Wake to a 2-0 start in the Atlantic Division of the ACC (4-1 overall). The Deacons play at Maryland Saturday in an important division game.
“All these (defensive) guys, it feels like they’ve been at Wake as long as I’ve been at Maryland,” Coach Ralph Friedgen said with a laugh. “(Robinson) is doing very well. They have a very good cast around him and it really makes it difficult to isolate on any one individual. He’s really been a tremendous addition to their team.”
The NCAA granted Robinson a sixth year of eligibility because of his injury history. After getting an offer from Wake late in his senior year at Cedartown (Ga.) High School, shoulder surgery kept him out of his true freshman season. He made an impact as a red-shirt freshman, starting the final 10 games, and started all 11 as a sophomore.
But in the final game of 2005, he suffered a fractured kneecap. It broke into two pieces and was surgically repaired with wires and screws. Although he tried to get ready for the 2006 season, the injury was too severe and he never played a down.
Robinson pushed himself to get ready for 2007, never missing a practice during training camp. He wanted to prove to himself, his teammates and his coaches that he could be counted on. His emotions ran high when the Deacons took the field for their opener at Boston College. On the first play of the game, cornerback Alphonso Smith intercepted a Matt Ryan pass and returned it for a touchdown.
During the play, as Robinson tried to block, someone fell on his ankle. The ligament damage was severe, but just short of needing surgery. Robinson hurt the ankle again in practice and was forced to sit out three games.
He finally returned to the field and played in the rest of the games, plus the Deacons’ victory over Connecticut in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. When he watched himself on film, however, he didn’t see the player he used to be.
“I felt like I was treading water,” he said. “I felt like I was going to be OK until I busted my ankle on the first play against Boston College. From then, I was barely keeping my above water. I had two bad legs instead of one. It was frustrating. But we were winning and that’s all that matters.”
Robinson’s efforts just to get on the field did not go unnoticed throughout the ACC. He was voted the recipient of the Brian Piccolo Award as the league’s most courageous player.
Although he knew he had a classic case for being granted a sixth year, having missed two complete seasons with injuries, Robinson thought briefly about not coming back one more time.
“At the end of the year I was really beat up,” he said. “I got a concussion at NC State, I’m really hobbled, I’m looking really terrible on film. I thought when I watched myself, ‘My leg is really fatigued, really tired.’
“Coach gave me some time off before the bowl game and I got back feeling really good and felt like I was more competitive (against Connecticut). We’ve got a lot of good young defensive ends, and we had (seniors) Anthony Davis and Antonio Wilson, so I wanted to come back, be an older guy. I kind of felt like the team needed me.”
After a good summer of workouts, Robinson made it through training camp without incident and has played in every game. He feels he is more competitive than he was last season.
“The main thing is to get pressure on the quarterback, that’s what I need to be able to do here,” he said. “When they go to throw the ball we can’t let them sit back there. We don’t have a ton of sacks but he’s not sitting back there play after play and throwing the ball around. He’s going to have to move.”
Grobe said he thought Robinson was a bit tentative early this season but has come around lately.
“He has given us great leadership,” Grobe said, “and while at times he doesn’t have a lot of stats to back it up, he’s starting to play really good football for us right now. He’s been a great leader for us on defense.
“I think you’re starting to see the old Matt Robinson coming back around. He seems really comfortable with the defense and every snap he seems to be playing at a high energy level. I think that’s coming from having a little bit more confidence in his assignments and feeling better about his knee. He seems to be getting stronger and that knee injury seems to be a thing of the past right now.”
Robinson’s perseverance enabled him to reach this point and drives him to continue. He can’t bend his knees like he used to, so that keeps him in a higher stance. He harbors no illusions about playing in the NFL, other than perhaps a long shot at special teams, so he looks at his remaining games as the end of his career and plays as many snaps as he can.
“When it’s your last go-around, you see the tunnel closing and the light going off and you want to get in there as much as possible,” he said.
Robinson loves football and plans to stay involved as a coach. His twin brother, Drew, played at Jacksonville State and is a graduate assistant there. Matt also wants to become a graduate assistant and see where that leads. He earned a sociology degree last December and is taking graduate courses in communications, which he hopes will lead to a master’s degree.
He is already something of a coach on the field, passing on wisdom to his backup, red-shirt freshman Kyle Wilber.
“I’ll see things when I’m out there and when I get to the sidelines I’ll tell Kyle, ‘When you go against this guy, work on this move,’” Robinson said. “He can do some things I can’t do and if it’s a certain move that he’s better than me, I’ll get him in there for me because it’s all about winning. It doesn’t matter who makes the play, if we win that’s all I care about.”
Henry said Robinson asks questions about coaching all the time. While Henry constantly reminds him of the hours of work required, he also believes Robinson would be a good coach if he chooses.
“I love coaching Matt Robinson,” Henry said. “I wish I had more Matt Robinsons around.”
Being out of football for two different seasons and hobbled for much of another one has given Robinson a different perspective on the game.
“It will definitely make you appreciate it more,” he said. “After a win and you’re tired and you’re worn out, there’s nothing more fulfilling. After Clemson I was exhausted, I (just) about couldn’t make it off the field, but it’s a great feeling. You appreciate that a little more and you appreciate just being able to practice.
“In a way, it allowed me to pull back and see that football is not life. It’s a great game and it will be part of my life, but it’s not my life. It helped me to realize that when I am a coach, I have to (understand) what these guys are going through, what an injury is like.”
Robinson hopes he’s through with injuries, although he realizes he has little control over them. His aim for the next seven games is to help the Deacons reach the Dr Pepper ACC Championship in Tampa. He has seen the program grow from losing seasons in his first three years on campus to two consecutive bowl games and wants be a part of that trend.
“I can’t do some of the things I used to do, “ he said, “but I’ve gotten back good enough where I can be competitive in there. So I feel like I can help the defense out and that’s all I want to do and be a part of.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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