MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — His ambition lunged and lurched, not unlike a safety caught between charging and retreat.
First to February 2016, when Kenny Robinson was a high school junior in Wilkensburg, Pa., and already dreaming of starring at West Virginia. Having heard much about Dravon Askew-Henry becoming an instant starter in the Mountaineers’ secondary, Robinson presumed he’d follow the same course the following year after Askew-Henry left early for the NFL.
Then to June 2017, when Robinson enrolled at WVU and encountered Askew-Henry rehabbing a knee injury that postponed pro football. With the timeline altered, Robinson presumed to spend the season as a backup.
“I really didn’t plan on playing as much with Dravon being here,” Robinson said.
He certainly didn’t plan on a personnel crisis leading him to start Week 2 — at cornerback.
So depleted, so susceptible, were the cornerbacks that defensive coordinator Tony Gibson figured Robinson could do better based purely on moxie and talent. The freshman even made sure to take the half of the field next to the Mountaineers’ sideline, so Gibson and defensive assistants could better relay coverage calls.
“He threw me out there and said, “Just ball,” because he figured I was just an athlete,” Robinson said. “At practice, I would go out to corner to just have fun, and he liked that aspect of me.”
The cornerback trial lasted three games, before injuries at safety forced Robinson to shuffle back to his natural spot. While Askew-Henry played the bandit, Robinson took over at free safety and made three interceptions. One of those became the game-saver at Kansas State, and the others he returned 39 and 94 yards for pick-sixes in losses to Oklahoma State and Texas.
Robinson properly contextualizes his eight starts on a defense riddled by big plays. He won’t contend that those interception returns mitigate the plays he was unprepared to make. He agrees with this assessment of safeties coach Matt Caponi:
“Kenny was kind of thrown in there last year, and I thought sometimes things moved a little fast for him, especially on Saturdays when things got rolling. It’s about finding consistency. And it’s about understanding not only what he’s doing but also the guys around him — the D-line, the linebackers, the corners. What keys are they reading? Where is your help?”
Robinson’s comprehension should be improved, and as much as he welcomed the “just ball” approach to playing corner, manning the middle of the secondary better suits him.
“I can see more of the field and can see everything develop. It’s more responsibility but I like it, because I’m not just on one side where they can throw it away from me. At safety I’m always a part of the play,” he said.
“It did get a little boring at corner — you don’t get as much action or as many tackles.”
Tall, fast and aggressive, he craves to become a punishing safety in the vein of Ed Reed, Sean Taylor and Landon Collins. (“I like watching their highlights,” Robinson said. “Those guys are the true definition of dawgs.”)
And teammate Toyous Avery likes watching Robinson grow into a sophomore: “Man, he’s doing great — I wish I was 6-3, 200-something pounds.”
Thinking back on his recruitment, Robinson fielded offers from Virginia Tech, Iowa State and Cincinnati. He also considered Pitt before some pressuring tactics backfired.
“Pitt wanted me to commit, but I wanted to take my time with it, and they didn’t like that,” he said. “When they tried to force me to commit, I called Coach Gibby and said West Virginia is going to be the place for me.”
So far this place likes him back. Now let’s see what the dawg-in-training has planned for Year 2.