How Alabamas Cam Robinson became Nick Sabans first true freshman left tackle
Full steam into his fifth decade of coaching, there aren't many firsts left for Nick Saban.
One did sneak by the University of Alabama's head coach in Atlanta, even at 6-foot-6, 323 pounds, when Saban did something he's never done in 18 previous seasons as a college head coach: insert a true freshman as his full-time starter at left tackle.
He never had one at Michigan State, never had one at LSU, never sent one out for Toledo in 1990 nor in his previous seven seasons at Alabama.
Never until Cam Robinson, the nation's top-ranked offensive lineman in the Class of 2014, took the field in the Georgia Dome against West Virginia last Saturday.
College coaches don't draft long-term plans that involve a true freshman anchoring the left edge of his offensive line. It's even more rare to see Saban and Alabama, the gold standard on the recruiting trail, put in a spot where the elite young talent siphoned into Tuscaloosa isn't forced to wait behind someone more accomplished, or at least someone who has been around longer.
But with other talented options at Alabama's disposal, the bold move is a bigger testament to the talent and potential of Robinson, a Monroe, La., native who enrolled at UA in January. He went through spring drills, took control of the starting spot in fall camp and never wavered.
So here Robinson is, 18 years old and 10 months removed from starting for West Monroe High, now charged with protecting the blind side of an inexperienced quarterback rotation. When SEC play begins, he'll be blocking the best defensive ends the league has to offer every week, a crop that will include a host of future NFL draft picks.
"Left tackle is definitely a tough position and Coach Saban along with a lot of other coaches like to have a really solid pass blocker there because that's obviously where teams put their best pass rushers. You end up in a lot of one-on-one situations when you play left tackle," former UA All-American and four-year starter Barrett Jones said.
Jones started as a redshirt freshman at guard and played his junior season at left tackle for Saban.
"It's really mentally challenging and you have to really have a lot of belief in yourself," Jones said. "If you're not confident out there are a lot of good pass rushers who will sense that and take advantage of it, especially in the SEC.
"I think it's so, so difficult to start as a true freshman. You obviously have to be very talented."
Left tackle a tough task
If it were easy, more college teams would be doing it.
Of the 64 starting left tackles at Power Five conference schools in 2014, 48 have at least three years of previous college football experience. Fourteen are sophomores with one or two years on a college campus. That leaves two, Robinson and Michigan's Mason Cole, as the only true freshmen tasked with handling the most magnified position on the front.
In 2013, Ole Miss' Laremy Tunsil, the nation's top-ranked lineman for the 2013 class, and Virginia Tech's Jonathan McLaughlin were the only two true freshmen doing it. At Alabama, it hasn't been done since Andre Smith in 2006, the season prior to Saban's arrival.
Before last Saturday, the youngest full-time starter Saban has ever sent out to left tackle was redshirt freshman Andrew Whitworth at LSU in 2002. That experiment panned out nicely: Whitworth started four years, set what was LSU's record for starts in a career (52) and anchored the offensive line during Saban's first national title run in 2003.
Whitworth starts his ninth season as the Cincinnati Bengals' left tackle on Sunday. And how is this for coincidence: Whitworth is from Monroe and went to West Monroe High, the same hometown and school as Robinson.
Starting Whitworth early looks brilliant now, but it doesn't mean the first year was easy.
"I remember first time I go into The Swamp (at Florida), I'm playing left tackle, I can't hear anything and you're just trying to get off the ball on time," recalled Whitworth, who is familiar with Robinson because of their hometown connection. "There's going to be some of that. But I think Cam, No. 1, he's played at a high school that plays at a really high level. They expect a lot of their players so he's prepared for that kind of atmosphere. No. 2, Nick is one of the greatest coaches in college football, he couldn't be in a better situation to play for a guy like that."
When Whitworth sees the crop of NFL rookies come to training camp each year, he tells them just how difficult a job left tackle is.
"Let's be honest, you can stop a guy 80 times in a game but the one time they make a big play people make a big deal out of it," he said. "That's how hard our position is. You look at just how disproportionate defensive lineman and offensive lineman are. A D-lineman wins one time a game he's a Hall of Famer in the NFL. That means he's averaging 16 sacks a season, which would send him to the Hall of Fame no question.
"If an NFL offensive lineman loses one time a game, meaning you give up 16 sacks a season, you wouldn't be there the next year. I can lose one out of 80 and I don't have a job."
Case in point on why almost no first-year players are trusted with the responsibility: The talent pool doesn't produce first-year players fit for the job, and even when they come along, coaches side with caution even when there is a less talented, but experienced, alternative.
The risk is big, but so is the reward. If Saban's Robinson experiment works, it means Alabama would be set at a crucial position for three full seasons before he would be eligible for the NFL draft, making the initial trial by fire in 2014 pay big dividends in 2015 and 2016.
For Robinson, already tapped as a shoo-in, early-round NFL draft pick before he played a college game, it could mean a bright future at one of the most lucrative positions in pro football. Whitworth, a second-round pick by Cincinnati in 2006, is one of eight NFL left tackles making at least $5 million in base salary in 2014.
Welcome to Alabama
The decision to start Robinson wasn't made by just popping in a tape of his high school game film.
But it was a sound indicator of his potential.
McNeese State offensive line coach Rob Sale recruits every cranny of North Louisiana, and when lays his eyes on an athlete like Robinson, he knows previous relationships, hometown ties or wishful thinking won't do him much good.
"When your Alabamas and LSUs are after him, you know you don't have much of a shot," said Sale, a fellow Monroe native who has known Robinson for several years. "You can see his athletic ability. I mean he's 6-foot-6, long arms, 325 pounds, can change direction and can bend. That's what you try to find, kids that can slide their feet and sink their butt at the same time. That's what Cam can do."
Even when the physical part is there, they still must translate to the college game, and the first part of that is understanding concepts and being able to handle mental anguish like failure, cramming schematics and crippling humidity.
That's known more commonly as spring and fall camp.
"It's very stressful. The mental aspect of it is what people don't talk about enough," Jones said. "It's very mentally challenging just to go through what Cam has gone through, especially never having played any games and not really knowing the offense that well just because he's been there for such a short time. It is very stressful, and you just never want to be the guy who makes the mistake that costs your team the game. At left tackle, that's a distinct possibility. You've seen it plenty of times.
"He's probably going through a lot of stress - not bad stress necessarily, just stress that he wants to play well and help his team."
One major advantage for Robinson was enrolling early, which provided an extra semester for Robinson to learn his way. Jones called it "half a redshirt." Mason, the other true freshman starting at left tackle at Michigan, also enrolled early.
"They say they're starting a true freshman, then I figured out (Robinson) was the No. 1 player in the country," West Virginia head coach Dana Holgersen deadpanned prior to last week's game. "And he was there all spring, so I really don't consider him much of a true freshman."
Sale played for Saban at LSU (2000-02) and spent five seasons as an offensive analyst and a weight room assistant at Alabama (2008-12). He witnessed the offseason crash courses for offensive linemen first-hand.
"It's already hard anywhere to play as a freshman, it hard especially at Alabama because you're going against different looks in spring camp and you're getting fall looks, Coach Saban and (defensive coordinator) Kirby (Smart) are throwing the kitchen sink at you," Sale said. "You're getting a lot of blitz and a lot of movement and it's so hard for the game to slow down for him along with the rules and concepts you're trying to do.
"To play in such close quarters and things happen so fast, you fully have to understand your rules and concepts of what's going on."
Prove yourself in fall camp, Sale said, and it's downhill from there. With the start last Saturday, Robinson passed the test.
"Once they get through that, the game is so easy for them when they're really talented," Sale said. "Cam is going to have so much success in the games because he's getting the hardest things in practice and scrimmages from Coach Saban so the game is going to naturally slow down. Once all that slows down it's easy to play."
Playing for Saban
If it existed, the Young Players' Guide to Starting For Nick Saban would be divided into two chapters: Monday through Friday Saban, and Game-day Saban.
The first is tough so the second doesn't have to be.
"Nick, that personality of his, he's pushing you all week long because he wants the easy day to be Saturday," Whitworth said. "A lot of people don't realize that a lot of the reason many linemen struggle is that they can't handle the pressure. They can't handle all the things that go on the day of the game. All the blitzes, all the heat, being on the road and it's wild ... all those things that kind of make you don't do what you're good at. They make you hesitate.
"Nick is great at applying so much pressure to you during the week that on Saturday, honestly, you should just be able to go out and play confidently and know that you're prepared to play football."
In a reverse from the perception of toughness derived from an icy public persona, Saban does his best to show his young players some love.
At least a little love.
"He's great, he pushes you hard but he also instills a lot of confidence in you and lets you know that you're his guy and you can get the job done and that's why you're out there," Jones said. "He's definitely not all kisses and hearts, but he's a great coach to play for. For me personally, I just remember he really made me feel confident going out there, like I could really help the team win a game."
Starting a freshman at a key spot requires extra maintenance from Saban and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal outside of teaching. Freshman demeanors can be fragile, so managing confidence can be just as important.
"With knowledge and experience also comes confidence," Saban said. "But there's really no way to create it without putting guys in certain situations."
It's part of the master plan. By game one, if there's a scenario that can happen on the field, even the youngest of players have seen it at least once already.
"We wouldn't put guys in the game if we weren't ready to be there," Saban said. "We also don't expect them to play perfectly. There's a word called development that no one ever seems to want to acknowledge in sports anymore."
Robinson, the fifth true freshman offensive lineman to ever start his first game at Alabama, looked like he had been there before. He stood calmly in the sideline huddle, turned the left ear hole of his helmet towards new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and listened for the play call.
Off they went. First-year starter Blake Sims quickly fired a pass to the perimeter away from Robinson's side. Amari Cooper grabbed it and ran for 24 yards.
Later in the opening drive, left guard Arie Kouandjio asked Robinson for a fist-bump in the huddle, the senior doing his best to keep the freshman confident.
"Cam was very poised. We had a good time, he really got into it. He never skipped a beat," Kouandjio said. "Before the game I just told him, 'Play like you did in high school, just play your game.' I believe he did that."
Robinson's footwork was sound. He never looked lost. He also was not perfect, but Sims darted around any trouble Robinson caused. Robinson missed a block that led to a Sims 2-yard scramble, and a miscommunication forced a throw-away pass to avoid a loss.
Alabama still scored touchdowns on both drives.
"Cam did really good, considering he is a freshman and it was his first game he has ever played in college," Saban said Monday. "There were some things he can do better, and there were a couple mental errors that he made. But we were really, really encouraged with how he played, where he is. Hopefully, he'll build on and improve in that regard."
No matter how much promise he showed, Saban's first true freshman left tackle wasn't going to be thrown to the wolves schematically.
Kiffin protected Sims with six or seven blockers - using tight ends and running backs to supplement - on 84.2 percent of Sims' drop-backs (32 of 38).
It worked. West Virginia only brought more rushers than Alabama had blockers twice all game. Alabama had at least one more blocker than West Virginia had rushers on 32 plays.
While Sims had to scramble because of pressure five times, he was never sacked.
With that, the Robinson experiment is off and running.
"The first game for everybody is such a blur, I'm sure it was for Cam," Jones said. "I re-watched my first game (at Alabama) probably about three years ago. I just watched it and thought, 'Man, I was terrible.' You really learn a lot going forward. And even though practice is important, you really can't replicate those game reps.
"It's good that he's getting that experience and I think he's going to turn into an outstanding player."
-Reach D.C. Reeves at 205-722-0196 or email@example.com.