Analytics, Patience and Hard Work: How Denard Robinson Found His Spot in the NFL

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistNovember 7, 2014

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

When Denard Robinson showed up on the NFL's doorstep, we kept hearing what he was not.

Not a quarterback. At 5'11", he wasn't tall enough, and the tape said he wasn't accurate or consistent enough, either. What's more, his mechanics were a mess.

Not a wide receiver. At the Senior Bowl in 2013, he tried playing the position and looked like he couldn't catch a beach ball on an underhand toss.

Not a cornerback. When he was a quarterback at Deerfield Beach High School in Florida, ranked him as the 16th-best cornerback prospect in the country. But he never played the position or anything close to it, and he would have had too much to learn.

Not an OW, or offensive weapon. He called himself an offensive weapon, and the Jaguars tried doing the same. In the early going he was given practice reps at halfback, fullback, wide receiver, kick returner and quarterback. But eventually the NFL—and reality—stepped in. The league forced the Jaguars to give him a traditional designation, and it became clear Robinson needed to focus primarily on one position.

Denard Robinson game-by-game

It took a special group of evaluators and coaches to determine what Robinson could be. It also took vision, patience, determination and, well, crossed fingers.

But since Robinson has run for more yards than any player in the NFL over the last three games except DeMarco Murray, anyone can tell you what he is. He is a running back. And a damn good one.

How he got to be one is a story that could have been written by Hans Christian Andersen.

They called him "Shoelace" as a kid because he played with his laces untied. And he could run by defenders even if his shoes fell off. In 2009, Rich Rodriguez thought Robinson could be the athletic quarterback he needed to get his offense rolling at Michigan, so he brought him to Ann Arbor. It was at a practice there on an autumn day that Robinson first caught the eye of Dave Caldwell, then the director of college scouting for the Atlanta Falcons.

"He was just a freshman, but his energy and spirit stood out," Caldwell said. "You could see his love of the game. He had so much fun on the practice field. Then you brought up his name to anybody at the university, and all you heard was what a joy the kid was, how much he was loved by everybody."

Caldwell didn't know it at the time, but Robinson's irrepressible nature would become a critical factor in his development as an NFL player. The player who once was Big Ten MVP and the cover boy for a popular video game had to come to terms with being just another fifth-round draft pick on a floundering team last year.

Robinson just worked through it.

"I wouldn't say he knew he wasn't ready, but he knew he had to get better, and he constantly worked to get better," Jaguars running backs coach Terry Richardson said. "He would do extra work unsolicited."

There was a solid commitment to making Robinson an NFL player, and it began with his attitude.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

"I'm a big believer in God, and he kept me focused," he said. "I always prayed about it. At times I got down on myself because I thought I could do so much better. But I never doubted I could make it as a running back."

Neither did Tony Khan. Whereas most teams thought Robinson's future would be as a wide receiver, the Jaguars thought differently—in part because of analytics. Khan, who is the team's senior vice president of football technology and analytics, rates running backs with a Speed Score. The formula involves body mass and speed, as well as other factors the team considers proprietary. Only two running backs in the 2013 draft had higher Speed Scores than Robinson.

Caldwell, who became the Jaguars general manager in 2013, paid attention to what the analytics told him. And he also paid attention to what his eyes told him. Caldwell saw that Robinson was an instinctive runner. He set the NCAA record for most rushing yards by a quarterback not by just sprinting straight ahead, but by negotiating the field.

"Being patient running the ball has come naturally," Robinson said. "I've always been patient and have known when to hit it."

AJ Mast/Associated Press

Caldwell knew Robinson was a playmaker, and the easiest way to get the ball in his hands was with a handoff. But Robinson said he had never taken a handoff in his life until the final game of his college career.

He had so much to learn. There was the running back stance. Footwork. Landmarks. How to transfer the ball. Hitting the right hole. How to run a route out of the backfield. Blocking technique. Blitz recognition—that was the hardest part.

He knew about run reads and blocking schemes from his time at quarterback, but as a halfback, the field looked different.

"They don't account for you as a runner when you are a quarterback," he said. "So you gain an extra blocker and you can get to the open field quickly. As a running back, they are accounting for you."

During his rookie year, his transition was bumpy and deliberate. In practice he was assigned to the scout team, playing the roles of Jamaal Charles, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and others. While he sat, Robinson studied teammates Maurice Jones-Drew and Justin Forsett. He also found a way to be of value on special teams.

Robinson had only 20 offensive touches all season. Three of them ended in fumbles, including one on his most significant play of the year. In the third quarter of a December game against the Bills, Robinson took a handoff on the 25, made a cut and saw nothing between him and the end zone. At the 1-yard line, however, Bills safety Aaron Williams approached from behind and swiped at the football.

The ball bounced out of the end zone for a touchback, and the Jags lost by seven.

Bleacher Report

"It hurt because I was so close and it could have been the difference in winning and losing," Robinson said. "That was my low point."

Early in the offseason, Robinson knocked on the door of head coach Gus Bradley.

"I don't want to go through another season like that one," he told him. "Tell me what I need to do to get on the field."

Bradley laid out a plan for Robinson. The Jaguars believed Robinson, who weighed 194 pounds when he first reported, had the frame to carry considerably more weight. The diet and training program he embraced resulted in him getting up to 215, his current weight.

Next, they wanted to enable him to make his new muscle functional. In the offseason, Richardson worked with Robinson on running violently. Robinson was naturally elusive. Richardson wanted him to be able to combine elusiveness with violence. "We worked on using a stiff arm or shoulder drop in combination with making cuts," Richardson said. "I call it use of weapons."

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

The team also wanted Robinson to focus on strengthening his right hand. Robinson had lost strength and feeling in the hand because of a nerve injury during his senior season. Then, shortly before the draft, he cut the same hand when he was skinning potatoes. The injury required 10 stitches, and then he ripped open those stitches during rookie camp.

Catching the football, and even carrying it in his right hand, was a problem all through 2013. So last offseason, Robinson was given a hunk of clay to squeeze and manipulate. There also was work with a tennis ball and a bucket of rice.

Robinson has no fumbles in 99 offensive touches this season. He also is catching the ball with ease. He has caught 14 of the 17 passes thrown his way, and has not dropped one of them, according to STATS.

"He's one of those guys you can really trust," said Richardson in what may be the ultimate compliment.

Since becoming the Jaguars' primary back, Robinson is averaging 5.8 yards per carry. He is running decisively, hitting the hole hard, keeping good pad level and breaking tackles. Richardson said 49 of Robinson's 94 rushing yards against the Bengals on Sunday came after contact.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 26:  Denard Robinson #16 of the Jacksonville Jaguars carries during the first quarter of the game against the Miami Dolphins at EverBank Field on October 26, 2014 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Robinson also has helped make the Jaguars better in ways fantasy football owners don't appreciate. Caldwell told Robinson he was more impressed with his pass protection than he was with splashy rushing numbers. Against the Titans, the "Mike" linebacker shot through the A gap untouched, but Robinson read the blitz and blocked him, enabling Blake Bortles to get the pass off.

"Most impressive thing he's done," Caldwell said. "That's what earned him more playing time."

Robinson was forced into a more prominent role because of Toby Gerhart's foot injury. Gerhart is back now, but Robinson will be the Jaguars' No. 1 back against the Cowboys in London Sunday.

"He still is learning, feeling his way, working at it," Caldwell said. "He's seeing a lot of things for the first time. He's not a finished product by any means. He still will have some adversity. But he has developed himself into a good player, and he has a higher ceiling than where he is."

How high is that ceiling?

"I think I can be one of the top backs in the league," Robinson said.

Now that we have figured out what Robinson is, we can start to dream about what he can become.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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