Editor’s note: This is Part III in a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s not going to be easy, but Cam Robinson is going to do it. The five-star prospect from Louisiana is still wet behind the ears, but that won’t stop him from claiming the left tackle position at Alabama. He'll be replacing another former highly-regarded recruit who played in his first eight games as a freshman before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Cyrus Kouandjio would recover and start 27 consecutive games as a sophomore and junior and is on pace to be taken in the first round of May’s NFL draft.
Whether Robinson develops into that successful an offensive tackle remains to be seen. Rather, today is reserved for the slightly less ambitious question of whether a true freshman can enroll early, beat out some stiff competition and start from Day 1 at a position that is widely considered the most pivotal on the offensive line. Robinson, who cuts an imposing figure at 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, is the best equipped of Alabama’s eight early enrollees to answer with a resounding, “Yes.” And that’s saying something, if you take Nick Saban at his word.
“I’ve been really impressed with the eight freshmen that we have here,” the 62-year-old head coach of the Tide said last week. “I think that it's a huge advantage for them to be here. But they've all sort of done a nice job in the offseason program, are all guys that look like might be guys that can compete to help the team in some kind of way which I think is a real positive for us.”
Robinson gave up his final semester of high school -- prom, graduation, etc. -- to come to Alabama early and compete. It wasn’t a tough decision, he said, because it would give him the leg up he was after.
“I had to think about the long run, how it would benefit me when I get to college,” he told reporters on signing day in early February. “So it wasn't a tough decision at all.”
Coaches have told him he’ll play left tackle, he said, which is obvious when you look at his tape. He might be big, but he’s more than athletic enough to play on the outside. As his ESPN scouting report notes, he has “good initial quicks off the ball, ankle flexibility and the strength to deliver a jarring initial pop.” There are plenty of colorful adjectives one could use to describe the way he hits the second level of the defense.
“Of course I wouldn't mind starting,” Robinson said, “but that's something you have to ask coach about.”
For now, Saban isn’t saying. He wouldn’t put the pressure on a player like that. And Mario Cristobal, who is in charge of the offensive line, isn’t allowed to speak to the media.
That said, Robinson seems like he has humbled himself to the challenge of competing at Alabama. When asked what he needs to work on, his answer was very much to the point.
“Everything,” he said. “I need to work on everything. SEC man, with these defensive linemen, it's crazy. These guys are freak athletes. I'm working on everything I can to just get better overall.”
He’ll have challengers, but none with the upside he possesses. Leon Brown should figure into the competition, along with Brandon Greene and Brandon Hill. Dominick Jackson, who was the No. 1 offensive tackle in junior college last year according to ESPN, wasn’t signed by Alabama to sit and watch. He’ll push Robinson as much as anyone.
But there are already rumblings coming out of Alabama that Robinson will play as a true freshman, and spring practice hasn’t even begun. If his work ethic matches his physical tools, then the job very well could be his.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Kouandjio was talked about much in the same vein prior to his arrival in 2011. Had he enrolled early, he might have done more than play in eight games as a true freshman -- he might have started.
It’s going to be a tall task for Robinson to win the job and start from Day 1. That challenge will begin on Saturday when Alabama opens spring practice in Tuscaloosa. How Robinson fares over those 15 practices will either propel him to a starting role or set him on a course for later development. But given the landscape of things, bet on the more ambitious goal.