Duke Robinson: Big Man Makes Good

Oklahoma's combustible offenses over the last few years may have had Adrian Peterson and Sam Bradford as their faces, but the heart resided in an offensive line that developed into one of the best in recent memory.

Leading the way for the 60 or more points in five straight games (an NCAA record), 716 points and 96 offensive touchdowns (records also) was that line, and the power was left guard Duke Robinson.

In a recent exclusive interview with Scout.com, Robinson talked about what it was like to work on that line. "It was like we were all one," he said. "I knew what those guys were thinking, and I think they knew what I was thinking, too. It was wonderful. I played with (left tackle) Phil Loadholt for two years, played with the right guard (Brandon Walker) for four years, and the rest of the guys were four years."

Oklahoma lineman Duke Robinson, left, and Mississippi lineman Michael Oher talk after The Home Depot ESPNU College Football Awards ceremony in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Thursday, Dec. 11, 2008. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

What was it like working with Loadholt, who's seen as a potential first-rounder? "Most of the time, it was him or the center (Jon Cooper) with the highest grades at the end of the day," Robinson said. "He's a phenomenal run-blocker and pass-blocker. He's a big guy, but really athletic -- crazy athletic. Playing with him for two years, we got real close."

That closeness led to an efficiency and schematic creativity which emphasized the talents of each individual player. At 6-5 and 330 pounds, Robinson is known as true earthmover, but he's also required to pull and provide agility. "We'd mix it up and do different things," he said. "We had track (angle) schemes, zone schemes, pulling schemes where I was pulling to the outside or the opposite side of the ball. Strong or weak side. We'd use every offense -- spread, bunch, jumbo. There are a lot of different things -- two tight ends, one tight end. Single back, two back, sometimes we'd have three backs. We had a wonderful offensive coordinator (Kevin Wilson, who won the 2008 Frank Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant) and the right personnel to get the job done. We had a versatile offense, and we were able to do different things for the guys we had."

As the offense moved from Adrian Peterson's amazing ability on the ground to Sam Bradford's Heisman-level passing, Robinson's pass-blocking became more of a factor, and it's something he's still developing. "Thing about my pass-blocking is -- I'm so in tune with run-blocking, that there are times when I pass-block that I get too aggressive. Going after a guy instead of sitting back and letting it happen. I don't really have a problem with pass-blocking or anything like that. I've been working on my technique and I'll be able to handle it at the next level."

Born on October 10, 1986, Robinson grew up in Atlanta and once sold hats at Braves games. His great-uncle is the renowned Motown singer Smokey Robinson, and a love for the vintage tracks transferred. "I've been real busy with working out and being with the family, but most of the time when I listen to music, I listen to a lot of old-school -- Motown, slow-motion. Al Green, Smokey, Teddy Pendergrass."

Robinson played tackle and guard at Booker T. Washington High in Atlanta, but decided to head to Oklahoma for the next step. "It was based on my situation and the things I wanted to accomplish as a person and get away from what I was surrounded by," Robinson said at the Combine of his decision to leave home. "I thought that Oklahoma would be the best fit for me, and a turnaround for me that would get me in the position I needed to be."

He started in 2005 and 2006, blocking for a ground game that featured Peterson as the pointman. Robinson said that "AD" did more for him than just run through the holes he opened. "It was phenomenal, man. I had the juice already, but when I knew he was getting the ball, and coming my way or I was pulling up front -- he'd grab me by the facemask and tell me to smoke it (waste the defender). There was so much momentum and energy that he gave me. He had confidence in me, and that really gave me a lot of my juice."

Peterson graduated to the NFL after the 2006 season, leaving Robinson and his linemates to develop new moves in a different offense. The Sooners went from 2,682 passing yards in 2006, to 3,615 in 2007, to 4,891 in 2008 -- from 340 to 401 to 517 attempts. But the most advanced aspect of line play had been part of Robinson's continuing education all the way.

"I've been doing that since AD (Adrian Peterson) was here. Athletes change -- we progressed and I progressed. There were things that I was doing that became easier and a lot more natural (over time). Pulling, side-to-side, getting to the next level. That's why, most of the time, I was the guy doing those things, because I was good at it. We did a lot of disguised pass plays, different things. It would be tough to pinpoint one thing that we did all the time. We'd run slide protection, and we did have plays where we'd pull both guards. But it was usually a guard and center, or a tackle and a guard.

"We're graded on everything -- technique, footwork, hand placement. It's really hard to get over 90 percent in our offense and the way our coach graded us when I was at Oklahoma. I got 88 or 89 a lot, and Phil would get 91 or 92. They grade on run plays and pass plays. If you have 80 plays in the game, say 40 and 40, that's 50 percent for each, and there's your 100. Maybe you blocked a guy, but you didn't block the way they wanted, and you'd get a point or half a point taken off."

At the Combine, I asked Robinson if people undervalue the guard position overall, and I asked him to elaborate on the concept. "I think guard is probably the hardest position," he said. "I played tackle and guard, but … most of the time, you've got a 300-pound guy right on top of you at the snap, and he's in your face. You've got to have strength, quickness, power, at the same time to get the job done on the inside. You might have a linebacker walk up in the B-gap, and a guy trying to bull-rush you, stuff like that.

"As far as the agility part … you're working with the center and the tackle, pulling around and moving laterally, specific pass-blocking schemes … it's a lot, but I love it. With me, it's all about my speed, quickness, and strength. That's how I win my battles. Getting to the second level as well and getting the job done."
The changes on offense did lead to an upturn in penalties, which Robinson admitted had to do, in part, with those new developments. "It was more my junior year that I had those problems. We switched the offense and the snap counts so much that you really had to be in tune with what we had going on with the snap count. Audibles and stuff like that. So I really had to bite down and focus. I wanted to get off the ball and get to my guy so bad, I'd forget the snap count. I just had to relax and stay focused."

Now, he's staying focused on the future that the NFL can hold for him. Does he talk to Sooner alums who currently play in the pros? "Yeah -- I talk a lot to (Tampa Bay guard) Davin Joseph," Robinson said. "We were really good friends (at Oklahoma), and he told me things about the draft. Along with my agent, that got me learning different details. Just talking about different blocking schemes, so that when I went to the board (meeting with teams at the Combine), I knew what I was talking about. I think he did a great job, and I really appreciated him helping me out with that."

For Robinson, the Combine was "an overwhelming experience, you know? It was cool, but it was like well-organized chaos. Everything was scheduled, but you'd go to sleep at 1:00 or 2:00 and get up at 4:00 or 5:00. I didn't get a lot of rest, but I enjoyed it. The worst thing was when I pulled my groin in the first drills, because I had high expectations of myself for the Combine, but I overcame that at my Pro Day. Overall, I think the experience was pretty good."

Robinson worked out for the Rams and Browns around the time of his Pro Day in March, the Steelers and Dolphins have shown a great deal of interest, and he's got a visit with the Falcons coming up on the 16th. After his need to get away and find a new environment, how would he feel about coming home? "I mean … I was ready to go to Oklahoma to get away from certain things I was surrounded by. But this is my life, this is my job, and I'm ready to do whatever I have to do. It would be a great thing for me, having my family and friends come to the games. I was kind of worried about coming home at first, about having it be a problem, but I'm a grown man now. It wouldn't be a problem."

I asked Robinson what the team that drafts him will be getting in a person and a player. "I think the best thing I can bring to a team is my physical presence. My blocking style, my mentality, the way I play football is totally different from other offensive linemen. I learn the same way, but the way I play is more like a defensive lineman would play. I'm defending my quarterback and I'm trying to kill the guy -- coming off the ball like a monster. That's just the way I approach the game.

"I think I'm a pretty humble, cool person -- I think a lot of people would say that about me. When there's a dark cloud around the team or around the players, I try to lighten it up with a joke or something. Make them smile a little bit."

He's still putting it all together, but Duke Robinson intends to make some NFL team smile very soon. Certainly on the first day of the draft, and possibly in a starting role sooner than later, Robinson is ready to take on the next challenge as if it was one of the unfortunate defensive tackles he's pushed around in his estimable career.


Doug Farrar is the Publisher of Falcon Insider. He also writes for Football Outsiders, the Washington Post, ESPN.com, and the Seattle Times. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.

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