Ask any redshirt freshman on a college football roster about that first year on campus, and they’re all bound to tell you the same thing.
It was tough watching from the sidelines.
UK defensive back Davonte Robinson is no different. At first, it was difficult for the former Henry Clay High School standout to be a spectator to the game he was so used to playing every fall. Early on though, Robinson embraced his redshirt season for what it was intended to be: a learning experience.
“I think he’s grown tremendously, learning the game of football,” said UK defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale. “I think his knowledge of the game back there has improved so much. He’s very talented physically. He’s got height. He’s got tremendous speed — world-class speed. He’s got the length. But, I think, his mindset — he wants to learn football, he’s eager to learn it, he’s working hard, and now he’s understanding it.
“I think with that time and experience from the fall to the spring to the summer has made him that much more comfortable.”
Robinson couldn’t agree more, and he has done plenty of learning over the past year.
Primarily a safety in high school, Robinson was actually recruited by the Wildcats to play cornerback — Derrick Ansley, UK’s DBs coach when Robinson signed with the program last year, told the Herald-Leader on that signing day that he would be a “shutdown corner” in college — and that’s the position he started learning last fall.
“There was a lot more I needed to know,” Robinson said. “Playing safety in high school was kind of easy for me. … Coming here and trying to play corner, it was just like a whole new game.”
Robinson did his best at the new position, and his coaches and older teammates lauded his improvement over the course of the season, but once the Cats hit spring practice earlier this year, there was a bigger need elsewhere.
Clinkscale and Mark Stoops — a renowned DBs coach before he came to UK — asked Robinson whether he had a position preference moving forward.
“Wherever you want me to play, I’ll play and try to learn it,” he told them.
He ended up back at free safety — and though he was sincere in his whatever’s-best-for-the-team approach with his coaches — it was a welcome homecoming.
“I would much rather play safety,” he said this week. “It just came natural. It was just like a natural habitat for me, basically.”
Robinson is confident in his ability to see the open field and make plays from the safety position. Listed at 6-2, he said this week that he’s been at 195-198 pounds for fall camp, and his reputation as a speed demon preceded him.
Perhaps the most-talked-about UK summer camp performance in recent years was the time that Robinson showed up as a high school sophomore and Vince Marrow hand-timed his 40-yard dash at 4.29 seconds. A scholarship offer followed shortly thereafter, and the Cats managed to fight off serious interest from the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Notre Dame to keep Robinson in Lexington.
But the former Henry Clay track star is not just a flash on the field. He has serious football skills, too.
Starting safety Mike Edwards said he noticed Robinson’s ability early in last year’s fall camp, as the newcomer was learning the cornerback position. He’s noticed it even more this fall.
Edwards acknowledged that Robinson might be the fastest player on the team, but he also noted the power he brings to his position — “He’s strong,” Edwards said. “I didn’t think he was that strong” — and praised the redshirt freshman’s ability to use that strength to get off blocks and make plays.
Clinkscale has also been impressed.
“His size and his ability — you look for that every time you recruit a guy — and he has that naturally,” said UK’s DBs coach. “You take that ability and add the football knowledge to it, and he keeps taking the medicine with some experience, he has the makeup to be a very good player.”
After a year on the sidelines, it’s likely that local fans will see Robinson back on the field this fall. He entered camp as the No. 2 free safety on the depth chart behind Darius West, and — just this week — Robinson started working out as a kick returner.
He said he’s hoping to earn a spot doing that this season. Asked what he likes about returning kicks, Robinson smiled.
“The touchdowns,” he said.
Robinson will keep moving toward that goal on special teams, and he’ll keep listening to veterans like Edwards and West as he works to, one day, become the elite-level defensive back that the Wildcats’ coaches think he’ll turn out to be.
“When they’re out there, I watch everything they do,” he said of the veterans. “In the film room, they tell me stuff that I need to work on. And if I don’t do something right, they get on me. I’m listening to them, taking in everything that they give me and trying to learn.”