NOTRE DAME — Corey Robinson paused as he tried to remember the last time he dropped a pass in the red zone.
It happened during Notre Dame’s football practice Saturday, Aug. 9. But before then?
“I dropped one yesterday, too, but those were the first in a long time,” Robinson said after practice. “I can’t let those things happen. Dropping a pass in the red zone — that’s pretty much unacceptable.”
After he arrived at Notre Dame last spring, it didn’t take long for Robinson, son of former NBA great David Robinson, to establish himself as one of the most sure-handed receivers on the roster. Factor in his 6-foot-5 frame, and Robinson caught everything in his area code.
He found a place on last year’s offense, totaling nine catches for 157 yards and one touchdown. Once he’s in game situations, though, his ability to catch every ball in his radius dropped significantly.
According to statistics compiled by SBNation, Robinson caught 56.3 percent of passes that came his way in 2013. Compare that to graduated receiver T.J. Jones, who caught a team-high 64.5 percent. Robinson had the length and mobility to play at the collegiate level, but he lacked the strength.
“I’m not the strongest. I need to keep getting stronger,” he said Saturday.
Now sporting a haircut inspired by Italian soccer star Mario Balotelli and an additional 25 pounds of muscle, Robinson is preparing for a bigger role on the offense.
“He's a sponge,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “He's taking it in. Releases, top-ended routes, how to set up a defender, not making the same release versus man twice. Mixing it up, just learning the nuances of the position. And so his development in year two is not just using his size and now really becoming a student of the game.”
Still, the development takes time, as Robinson will be the first to admit. After a full week of practice, he offered an honest self-assessment.
“I think I’ve been playing well, but other days,” his voice trickled off. “Not so much.”
“Don’t tell coach I said that,” he quickly added, laughing.
Since the defense has adopted new coordinator Brian VanGorder’s more aggressive style of play, Robinson and the other receivers have taken their share of lumps during the first days of contact play. It’s part of why Robinson dropped two passes at practice for the first time in recent memory.
“These cornerbacks are so good and this defense isn’t a walk in the park,” he said. “It’s definitely challenging. I think I’ve grown mentally in understanding the game as a concept rather than, ’What is my route? What am I doing?’ It’s more, ’What are we doing as an offense?’ In that respect, I think I’ve grown a lot.”
With the departure of T.J. Jones and Troy Niklas to the NFL, receivers such as Robinson and classmate Will Fuller are primed to be Notre Dame’s next big weapons.
Before Notre Dame kicks off against Rice on Aug. 30, Robinson still has some fine-tuning to do. His top priority is consistency.
“Making the big play every time, whether it be in the red zone, on the field, on a go route for 40 yards or a small, two-yard under option,” he said. “I think I need to be consistent in my route running, consistent in my catching.”