Nebraska football coaches have long known and expected that Wan’Dale Robinson would have a chance to have an early impact during his freshman season.
Since Dec. 5, the day the 5-foot-10, 180-pound do-it-all offensive weapon flipped his verbal commitment from home-state Kentucky to Nebraska, it’s been almost a foregone conclusion, given the glovelike fit between Robinson’s dynamic skill set and the Huskers’ vision for a versatile slot-type weapon often referred to as a Duck-R.
What has occurred over the past three games, though, perhaps exceeds even the loftiest expectations. Robinson is not only an impact player, but he’s making a strong case as Nebraska’s most important skill-position player and the central point of coach Scott Frost’s offense going forward.
If your eyes don’t see the story when Robinson is on the field, then the numbers do.
In Nebraska’s first 3½ games, up until halftime Sept. 21 at Illinois, Robinson logged 22 offensive touches in 249 snaps, meaning he touched the ball on 8.8% of NU’s offensive plays.
That night, injuries to running backs Dedrick Mills and Maurice Washington forced Robinson into a more prominent role, and he was up to the task. He logged 22 second-half touches alone, finished the game with 168 offensive yards and a trio of touchdowns, the first of his career.
Beginning there, the past 2½ games have featured 46 touches for Robinson in 173 offensive snaps, meaning he’s had the ball in his hands on 26.7% of the plays called in that stretch. In the process, he’s racked up 317 yards (6.9 per touch), four touchdowns and a pair of Big Ten freshman of the week honors.
“He's not afraid of much. He wants the ball in these situations,” Frost said after Robinson helped Nebraska beat Northwestern last Saturday. "I said the same thing after the Illinois game — he's going to be a weapon for us around here for a long time. But we need some other guys to step up and be weapons. It really shows itself when JD (Spielman) is not out there, and we need guys to step up and keep being in the right place and making plays.
“Wan’Dale has proven himself to be a guy that we can rely on when we need him.”
As Frost referenced, there is typically more than one reason why touches wax and wane over the course of a season. To be sure, Robinson has seen the ball more in part because of injuries to others — the running backs against Illinois, junior wide receiver Spielman in the second quarter against Northwestern, etc. — and a half-game suspension for Washington against the Wildcats.
But Robinson has also just flatly produced and, in an offense that has struggled to push the ball down the field consistently, he’s easy to get the ball to because he’s equally comfortable lining up in the slot, outside, at running back or moving in motion.
“I just feel like, once you get the ball in your hands, it’s all the same,” Robinson said this week. “At the receiver position, when I get the ball into my hands, I feel like I turn into a running back and not just try to go down and get however many yards. At the running back position, as soon as I get the ball, my intention is to score.”
Robinson leads Nebraska in catches (25) and targets (38) and is second behind Spielman with 326 receiving yards. He also has 43 carries for 190 yards, making for an offensive total of 516 that is sixth overall in the Big Ten and fifth nationally among freshmen.
“I told (the coaches) I don’t care how much you need me to play running back. I don’t care how much you need me to play receiver,” Robinson said. “Whichever one you need me to play, I’m going to play. Also, whatever’s the easiest way for them to get the ball in my hands.”
The importance has only ratcheted up in recent weeks. Washington, for instance, didn’t play in the second half against Illinois — the team radio broadcasters said he was evaluated for a head injury — or the first half against Northwestern (suspension) and has just 12 touches for 18 yards in the past 2½ games. Junior running back Mills has 27 touches in the same span and Spielman has just six. Only quarterback Adrian Martinez (35 carries), who may not play Saturday against Minnesota, even approaches Robinson’s 46 touches.
Against Northwestern, Robinson accounted for four of NU’s five longest plays and did it in his typical variety of ways. He took a handoff 42 yards for a touchdown. He came in motion and took an inside shovel pass 49 yards right up the gut, making a Wildcat defender miss badly in the open field. He caught two balls up the sideline for 24 and 32 yards, the latter of which set up the Huskers’ game-winning field goal.
If Martinez, Spielman or both don’t play against the Gophers, Robinson’s role might grow even larger.
Regardless, the freshman is already in the process of solidifying himself as a centerpiece player for the Huskers.