USC's Nickell Robey makes impact
True freshman figures to start in the secondary, spurred on by a hunger to play
LOS ANGELES -- Lane Kiffin, in his new post as USC's head coach, has put a lot of effort into developing a well-seasoned, even-keeled persona.
When speaking publicly, he has consistently appeared calm -- even subdued -- hardly ever smiling, laughing or showing any sort of emotion.
But the shell cracks a bit when he begins to talk about Nickell Robey, a true freshman cornerback for the Trojans who has played his way into a starting spot with a tremendous fall camp.
Ask Kiffin about Robey, and the words start flowing.
Kiffin sounds almost parental when talking about the 18-year-old Robey. The coach glows when he talks about the time Robey came to one of his camps at Tennessee at 7 a.m. -- fresh out of bed -- and immediately had his vertical jump tested.
Robey jumped 40 inches that day, which would have tied for second among all cornerbacks invited to the 2010 NFL combine, and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds.
He's a superb athlete, no question, but that's not why he's so appreciated by Kiffin.
What is it about Robey that has Kiffin and the entire Trojans coaching staff so enthralled with his play?
It's the constant effort he makes to be coachable. The never-ending flow of big plays coming from him on the practice field. The head-in-the-playbook mentality he has conveyed since arriving.
Or it could be something a bit more simple.
"He's hungry," says his teammate in the secondary, safety Jawanza Starling. "That's really the main thing. You just want players that will play hungry. He sees the opportunity to get some real playing time and he's taking advantage of it."
The idea of Robey's taking advantage of his situation is particularly interesting, because so many cards were stacked against the possibility of Robey experiencing any early success with the Trojans.
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At 5-foot-7, 165 pounds, he seems too small -- when leaning on conventional wisdom, at least -- to play the cornerback position at the highest college level.
Coming from Central Florida, he's traveling farther for school -- roughly 2,600 miles -- than the vast majority of high school prospects. USC was the only school not in the Southeast that Robey considered.
And then this.
Not two weeks after he signed with the Trojans, his mother, Maxine, died of a massive heart attack.
But Robey, the fighter that he is, has one gigantic diversion: He loves football.
He really does. He calls it "a beautiful game" and it shows in his approach.
"His pure dedication and commitment, his willingness to study on a regular basis, to ask questions, to be in his playbook -- I think that speaks volumes about his love for the game of football," USC defensive backs coach Willie Mack Garza said. "He works extremely hard, he studies, he does the little things that it takes to understand offenses, and I think that's what makes him so good."
Robey committed to Georgia while at Frostproof High in Frostproof, Fla., but rescinded the commitment when the school fired its defensive co-coordinator who had recruited him.
Robey then grew infatuated with Kiffin and his staff at Tennessee. And vice versa.
Robey recently said he knew then he was going to follow Kiffin wherever he went, and he stayed true to his word.
The distance was tough, Robey says, but the process -- coupled with his mother's passing -- made him "real strong internally."
"It's a jump, that's for sure," says Starling, a fellow Floridian, on the choice to go cross-country for college. "It takes a big leap of faith to come all the way across the country. But the most important thing is having a good support group, and with him going through some things with his family and everything, it's basically our responsibility as teammates to support him and make him feel at home."
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Robey calls his early success at USC "a big surprise," but Kiffin disagrees. The first-year coach says he knew from the time he saw Robey on the field during that Tennessee camp that he could hang with any and all receivers.
What he might not have known, though, was the extent to which Robey would dedicate himself to his craft.
"Once he committed to us and signed with us, he really started studying the information about our defensive package," Garza said. "Then he started calling us and asking us questions before he even got here for summer conditioning."
When summer throwing sessions came around, Robey began coming in to the football offices on his own, checking out film and studying what Tennessee did defensively last season under Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron -- both of whom came over to USC with Lane Kiffin.
"That way, he really started to learn the package and understand the package," Garza said. "And once you begin to get an understanding of the defensive package, you begin to make plays.
"He jumped on it early and he flourished early, and he's only getting better."
Now, Robey's continued improvement has put the Trojans' coaches in an unusual predicament.
He has already taken over the nickel corner spot for the season opener against Hawaii, but Kiffin has not ruled out the possibility of starting him at corner across from Shareece Wright. Robey has done well in brief auditions to be the Trojans' punt returner but is also being considered for a gunner spot on punt return plays. He could be the kick returner -- or he could play on the kick coverage team.
"He can't obviously do all those things," Kiffin says. "Even though he thinks he can. We gotta figure out where we're gonna use him."
Kiffin is definitely right about one thing -- Robey believes he can.
"I feel like I can adjust anywhere on the field, being a defensive back," he says. "It is known to be one of the best athletes on the field, so I feel like I can adjust to pretty much anything on the field.
"I just gotta learn it and be trained and go out there and be great."
Pedro Moura is a correspondent for ESPNLosAngeles.com and is a contributor to the USC blog.