LOS ANGELES — Redemption came swift, and frankly unexpected, for Duce Robinson.
On a third-and-8 during the first quarter of Saturday’s loss to Washington, the freshman receiver found himself lined up on the outside in the most crucial game of the season. And lo and behold, he found himself wide open across the middle of the field, quarterback Caleb Williams firing a pass at him high and hard.
And a potential touchdown clunked off Robinson’s fingers.
It felt like a complete deflation of momentum in the moment, a true freshman who had gotten a shot unable to capitalize. It was defeating, Robinson said, in the moment; you could see it in his body language, outside receivers Dennis Simmons coach said. Robinson returned to the sideline, teammates grouping around him, telling him he’d have another shot to make a play.
“I don’t think any of us,” he said on Wednesday, smiling, “knew it was gonna be that soon.”
After the only three-and-out of an otherwise surgical night for the Huskies’ offense, Robinson trotted back out with the special teams unit, burst through the line, and stuck the lanky arms of his 6-foot-6 frame out for an emphatic blocked punt, setting up a Williams touchdown run on a silver platter.
“True character of a man is how he responds to adversity … I think that leveled him out, ground him and gave him his confidence to continue to play through the rest of the game,” Simmons said.
It’s a little generous at this point, perhaps, to call Robinson a man; despite a beard and natural self-assuredness, he’s still growing in both frame and understanding of the collegiate game, committing a key late-game holding call on a USC drive. But the fact he was even in the game in a key fourth-quarter situation speaks volumes to Simmons and the staff’s rapid trust in Robinson, a top 2023 recruit out of Pinnacle High in Phoenix who carved out a rotational role against Washington.
And through a largely disappointing season for USC (7-3 overall, 5-2 Pac-12), Robinson is one of the program’s brightest points for the future, with potentially dominant size and a gazelle’s speed to match.
“He’s gon’ be an animal,” running back MarShawn Lloyd said earlier this season. “He’s 6-foot-6, he’s going to grow more into his body … y’all don’t see it, plays that we see, it’s only going to get better.”
It took effort, too, to get dual-sport athlete Robinson to USC, a truly unique commitment journey that – considering all factors – might be head coach Lincoln Riley’s biggest recruiting win since taking over the program. Robinson and his family, Pinnacle High coach Dana Zupke said, were “carefully” looking at schools that demonstrated a willingness for football and baseball programs to work together so Robinson could play both. And that plan appears to have held, as Robinson said earlier this fall that he has been in constant contact with Trojans baseball coach Andy Stankiewicz and Riley was “completely on board with it.”
His recruitment within football, too, was complex. Robinson has always taken pride in his combination of size and athletic ability; that 6-6 frame, though, often led college teams to typecast him as a tight end, Zupke said.
“Duce wasn’t real high on that,” Zupke said, “and to (USC’s) credit, they shifted their lens towards him and started getting their receivers coach more involved.”
Riley, Robinson said, saw the way his body had evolved, and viewed him as a wideout. And he made an immediate impact in garbage time during three blowout wins to start the season, racking up 186 yards on a variety of long grabs; predictably, he then went quiet amid a stacked receiver’s room, but he showcased enough in practice to earn crucial snaps against Washington.
And not long after the blocked punt, he got another measure of redemption, too: catching a 43-yard pass from Williams.
“If I can get a little bit better every day,” Robinson said Wednesday, “eventually you’re gonna look back and you’re not even gonna know where you were.”
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