Notre Dame football: Robinson’s ascent obscuring family ties

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Corey Robinson never used the word “failure,” but his body language seemed to suggest it.

Apparently, the ability to play six musical instruments — several of which were self-taught — shine in the classroom, ascend on the football field, play two other sports and wash dishes at a level in which your basketball Hall-of-Famer father uses that example to boast about your laser-like focus wasn’t a full enough plate for the then-senior at San Antonio Christian High School.

He wanted to learn to speak French.

His motivation? So he could talk to father David Robinson’s former NBA teammate Tony Parker in his native tongue.

“Then I went away to college,” the now-Notre Dame freshman wide receiver says. “I didn’t learn quick enough.”

It might be the only time that the middle son (of three) of David Robinson can honestly make that statement, so much so that the occasions in which he is automatically referred to as David Robinson’s son, parenthetically, may be quickly dwindling.

After this weekend.

On Saturday David Robinson’s alma mater, Navy (4-3), meets his new favorite team, barely unranked Notre Dame (6-2), at Notre Dame Stadium (3:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV) in the 87th rendition of the longest continuous intersectional rivalry in the country.

It will be the first in which David Robinson will be pressured into wearing ND garb for this particular matchup.

“My grandpa too, who also served in the Navy,” Corey said with a grin. “(He) may be wearing Navy. I don’t know. There’s a lot of Navy happening right now. I think I need to change that.”

Not too long ago, though, Navy was Corey Robinson’s school, where he always envisioned going after high school.

“I view serving the country as a great privilege,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do that at some point.”

A dizzying climb out of nowhere in football changed that trajectory, much to his father’s approval, and continues to be the burgeoning story line that’s pushing his family ties into the background.

As a niche receiver in ND’s deep rotation, Robinson has collected five catches for 101 yards, including a 35-yard TD last weekend in a 45-10 rout of Air Force. His other four receptions have all gone for first downs.

Two years ago, by his own admission, Corey Robinson was rather non-descript in football, just as he was in tennis and basketball.

“People always ask me, why didn’t I play basketball?” the 6-foot-4½, 205-pounder said. “It’s not like I had a choice. I just wasn’t gifted enough to play basketball.”

He didn’t think he was gifted enough to play football either, but something clicked late in his junior year.

“I couldn’t jump very well or anything,” he said. “It’s just the way the Robinson genes work. We’re really unathletic, and then there’s one day, we get really athletic.”

Robinson, soon after that transformation, attended a football camp. Two weeks later, he had a scholarship offer from Notre Dame — the first and only offer for a while.

“I was a zero-star recruit,” he said. “I’d never even had a college coach at my practice before, and then that came out of the blue. I had no idea. So then I was just astounded. It was really cool to have that kind of prestigious program come and search me out.”

There’s a decided recruiting risk, though, with players who play “small ball,” where they dwarf the competition physically in high school, then often struggle with the culture shock of college competition.

Sophomore defensive end Jarron Jones is an example of that — a bright, physically gifted player who could play through bad habits in high school and who now struggles to push toward his potential. Many recruiting analysts thought Robinson, who attended a high school with an enrollment of about 350 students, would be a project, too.

“You have to project,” Kelly said of being able to decipher which small ball prospects can make the big leap. “You've got to be willing to trust your instincts on some of these things. And that's where, in the recruiting process, sometimes you have those longer discussions in the staff room, where everybody wants a sure thing or what is perceived to be a sure thing.

“I'm probably the guy on the other side. Being a (former) Division II two head coach, I took flyers all the time, because I was forced to. So they come easier to me.

“I'm not saying I'm the reason behind taking Corey Robinson. But you do have to have a sense that you can project. And it is more difficult when you play competition that you're superior to. Coupled with the fact that he's just bigger than everybody that he's playing against.

“But we took into the fact his pedigree. We took into fact in how our individual meeting with him (went). We were just struck with his intangibles. And it's that he was going to continue to grow and get stronger, and he was going to want to achieve like he's achieved in everything else, that this was probably a pretty good bet for us.”

As long as he doesn’t grow all the way to 7-foot-1 as David Robinson did from his 6-7 high school graduation height.

“We've had those quick conversations about it, ‘What if his dad’s genes kick in, I think we're out of business here,’” Kelly said with a laugh. “Maybe (Irish hoops coach) Mike Brey (will be) talking to me a little bit. But I think he can sustain a couple more inches.”

Robinson enrolled early last January, one of five members of this freshman class to do so and one of three in that group to start at least one game this fall. He quickly made waves in August training camp.

For that, he largely credits his father — in a roundabout way.

“One of the reasons we don’t talk about football is because he doesn’t know anything about football,” Corey said. “I won’t say I know a lot about football, and I do this every day. He knows absolutely nothing, so there’s nothing to talk about. What we always talk about (is) the competitive aspect of the game, the mental aspect.

“Just being able to talk to him about, mentally how do you approach the game, because at this level everyone’s fast. Everyone’s strong. Everyone can jump and do the things that you had an advantage over people in high school. It comes down to knowing that you could outdo the player, because you’re mentally tougher than him.”

But the best part of being David Robinson’s son the past few months hasn’t been the advice. It’s been seeing a different side of his celebrity dad.

“There’s so much on his plate,” Corey said, “and to know he takes two or three days off to come see me play — and he doesn’t know if I’ll get five reps or 15 reps — he’s always there. It means a lot to me.

“Watching him play when I was a kid, and now he’s being a dad instead of what a lot of people think David Robinson is. It just kind of brings it back to earth of son and father. You just have fun, play a game and he can watch me and support me. And that’s just really cool.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Corey Robinson (88) breaks away for a touchdown during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, at Falcon Stadium in Air Force Academy, Colo. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER