USC football or MLB draft? For now, Duce Robinson picks both

Duce Robinson, the No. 1 tight end recruit in the 2023 class, committed to USC. He is also ranked a top-100 prospect in the 2023 MLB draft. Michael Chow/The Republic/USA TODAY NETWORK

DUCE ROBINSON EARNED his first college football scholarship offer before he even knew how to buckle shoulder pads.

Never having played tackle football, he attended a 7-on-7 tournament prior to his freshman year at Pinnacle (Arizona) High School. Despite his inexperience, his natural ability and massive size (6-foot-4, 200 pounds as a 14-year-old) gave Arizona State coaches all they needed to see to give him an opportunity to play football at the next level.

At that time, Robinson already had a scholarship offer to play baseball at perennial power Arizona.

In the four years since, Robinson has grown to 6-foot-6, 235 pounds and has seen his offer list expand at a similar clip. Not only is he the No. 1 tight end in the class of 2023, he's a top-100 MLB draft prospect with the potential of earning a seven-figure bonus in July's draft. He's only the fifth person to ever play in the Under Armour All-America Game in both football and baseball.

Add it all up and Robinson is the most intriguing college football recruit in the country. He committed to USC last week but has been compared to Aaron Judge by an MLB bench coach. Of course, USC's football coach, Lincoln Riley, was at Oklahoma when Kyler Murray was a top-10 MLB draft pick but played another season with the Sooners and emerged as a Heisman winner and top overall NFL pick en route to a nine-figure contract with the Arizona Cardinals.

For Robinson, playing two sports is all he has ever known. Beyond Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson proving two-sport stardom is possible, there's a comp that hits much closer to home. His dad, Dominic, played wide receiver at Florida State under Bobby Bowden starting in 2001 and also balanced baseball under legendary coach Mike Martin. It's a big reason why Duce Robinson isn't ready to answer the "Football or baseball?" question just yet.

"He was my inspiration, and you always hear stories about what your parents did, especially when you're young," Robinson said. "But when you're a young kid playing catch, running routes or swinging a bat with him, you hear the stories and think, 'I could do that and I could do that better than him.' So my goal since I can remember was to follow in his footsteps and hopefully be better than he was."

As a result, the question that emerged with that initial 7-on-7 tourney continues to persist for Robinson. Football or baseball? MLB draft or two-sport collegiate stardom? Judge or Murray?

AS THE NO. 40 football recruit in the country, Robinson has a rare combination of size, speed and an ability to reel in passes that make him a matchup nightmare on any level. Over the past two seasons, he had 144 receptions for 2,586 yards and 22 touchdowns. He broke Pinnacle's single-season records for catches (84) and receiving yards (1,614) in 2022.

He landed offers from some of the top programs in the game -- back-to-back national champion Georgia, Texas, Alabama and Oregon among them -- but on March 30 committed to USC to play under one of the best offensive minds in the country in Riley.

The two of them had built a connection dating back to when Riley was Oklahoma's coach. Not only did Robinson feel comfortable with him, his staff and the Trojans' offense, but he knew Riley had been in this situation before with a player who wanted to pursue both football and baseball.

"He had Kyler Murray and it was recently," Robinson said. "Coach Riley has done this before with a guy at a super high level and he's all-in on it. He knows what works, what doesn't work and it was probably harder to balance it with a quarterback, because it's such a unique position."

Murray was the first player to play in the Under Armour All-America Game in both baseball and football in 2014. Since then, four other people have accomplished the feat: Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown, Kansas City Chiefs receiver Jerrion Ealy, Samford outfielder Maurice Hampton Jr. and Robinson.

Robinson plans on arriving at USC in June, moving in, participating in summer workouts and preparing for his freshman season.

A few years ago, he and his mother met Murray on a recruiting visit at Oklahoma. They sat down with the first person to be a first-round pick in both the MLB and NFL drafts for 20 to 30 minutes, talking about what it was like to play both sports. And how attainable it was with a coach like Riley.

ROBINSON'S FAMILY HAS heard of him being compared to New York Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who signed professionally out of high school in 2007. Texas Rangers bench coach Donnie Ecker, who has worked with and mentored Robinson over the past few years, compared him to another former MVP.

"Aaron Judge is maybe the only other guy we can comp to have the efficiency of Duce's bat path and his plate discipline," Ecker said. "And to know that he's just a baby when it comes to what he's going to grow into. I think Aaron Judge is the closest comp I have at this age."

ESPN baseball analyst Kiley McDaniel has Robinson, listed as an outfielder, as the No. 84 draft prospect this summer. He is described as still being raw, but scouts believe his rare physical tools, which can't be taught, will help him succeed in the sport.

Whether Robinson is chosen in the first round, fifth round or much later in the MLB draft depends on a variety of factors -- how he performs this spring, what his contract demands are, whether teams believe he wants to go to college and more. Robinson's options and the draft's financial slotting system make projecting his status with any certainty this early extremely difficult.

He wants to prove to MLB scouts that his potential is worth allocating a high draft pick. Major league teams want him to get reps on the baseball field at their level, and Robinson plans on continuing his already stringent workout regimen, practicing his technique, participating in the MLB combine and working out with teams privately.

Most baseball players selected in the draft will spend three to five years in a minor league system, climbing the ranks to hopefully one day make The Show.

"We're just trying to get ready for the draft right now. We're ready for everything and hopefully I get drafted highly," Robinson said. "And then the goal from there would be to play college football and hopefully be able to sign a professional baseball contract so I could play both that way."

While it isn't likely, there is a scenario in which no MLB team selects him in the draft, or he could be a late selection. If that situation plays out, the family believes they have the leverage because of Robinson's commitment to USC. Playing three years of football and baseball for the Trojans could set him up for success for the future if he can continue to develop his talents.

THE NCAA ALLOWS student-athletes to play college football after being drafted by a major league organization. If he signs a contract with a professional baseball team, he won't have college eligibility in baseball, which is fine with Robinson as long as he has his shot at an MLB contract.

College football is already a full-time job for athletes trying to manage their schedules, classes, workouts and team obligations. Adding in the commitment of being a professional athlete in another sport is a challenge Robinson welcomes.

"The first couple years in the minor leagues, they're super flexible with those guys, where the major leagues it usually leaks into football season a little bit," Robinson said. "But, baseball would be in the summer and then football is during the fall. So, the plan right now is to continue to play football for as long as possible and baseball for as long as possible."

Robinson's mother, Mary Beth, swam competitively at Florida. Dominic was a highly touted prospect coming out of high school in the same recruiting class as Matt Leinart and Larry Fitzgerald. He was a two-sport athlete, playing both football and baseball his freshman year. Under Bowden, he moved from defensive back to wide receiver, where he recorded 680 receiving yards and two touchdowns from 2002 to '04. Once his college career was over, he signed with the then-St. Louis Rams after the 2005 NFL draft.

Robinson says he believes he, too, can play both sports for as long as his body is willing to let him. He doesn't foresee needing to decide between the two as long as someone will let him play both at the highest levels.

Dominic remembers the pressure he felt when he was going through the recruiting process, playing football at the highest level and balancing baseball as well. He said he hasn't put any pressure on his son to recreate his own career, encouraging him to experience everything for himself, make his own decisions and forge his own path.

"He's super driven, he's goal-oriented and his goal was to be a professional sports player," Dominic said. "Going to college for a sport was one of the steps on that path, but he knows what it takes to get to what his ultimate goal is."

AT AN EARLY age, Duce stood a head above his peers and was among the fastest kids, whether it was at recess or on a field. Dominic said jokingly that his son had biceps before he could even walk.

The Robinsons lived in Dallas, but Dominic worked as an assistant football coach at the University of West Georgia, so he would travel to and from Texas, which meant he would begrudgingly miss some important events for Duce and his younger brother, Dyson.

One moment that especially stuck out in Dominic's mind was when 5-year-old Duce told him he made the McKinney Little League All-Star team, which was composted mostly of 7-year-olds. Dominic broke down in tears not just because he wasn't present for the accomplishment, but because he knew at that moment his son was special.

"We were certainly not expecting him to become one of the best athletes in the country, but we knew that he had that level of engagement," the father said.

Dominic worked in college athletics for most of Duce's childhood. The family moved to Des Moines, Iowa, when he took an assistant coaching job at Drake University in 2014. He left college athletics to start 3D Performance, a training facility and program that works with athletes at all levels in baseball, then moved the family to Phoenix in 2016.

There is where Dominic met then-Arizona baseball coach Jay Johnson. Johnson had offered scholarships to a few of Dominic's other 3D players, but watching Duce's skills and size as an eighth-grade outfielder playing alongside high school upperclassmen convinced him to offer Duce his first scholarship.

Dominic built a connection with Ecker, the Rangers' bench coach, through mutual connections five years ago. Ecker, 37, has since become a big brother of sorts to Duce, working with his on-field mechanics and guiding him through the mental side of the game. Despite being around major league players his whole life, he says Duce already thinks and works like a major leaguer.

"I'm around 18-to-35-year-old baseball players every day, and I'm working with Duce at 7:30 p.m. in Surprise, Arizona, in a cage when it's raining outside," Ecker said. "After he's had school, weights, he drove an hour to get there and I look in his eyes. I just know this person is different and he's not someone I'm going to bet against."

Johnson wasn't the only coach to be wowed by Duce's abilities. Upon seeing Duce at the 7-on-7 tournament for the first time, Dana Zupke, who has been Pinnacle High School's football coach for the past 18 seasons, knew a player of his caliber wouldn't come around every year.

Still, despite Duce's natural talent, not every aspect of football came easy to him. He had some shortcomings early on in his career -- even learning to catch the ball took time. It was Duce's work ethic and attention to detail that stood out to him.

In Zupke's eyes, there was one driving force.

"What keeps coming up is, 'My dad played both in college and I want to be like my dad.' That's what I hear probably more than anything," Zupke said. "There's ambition there and I know he wants to play both professionally. But I think it really comes down to his sense of family and identity, and I think he wants to emulate somebody that he admires and respects the most probably in this world, which is Dominic."

IN SOME WAYS, the next few months will be familiar for Robinson -- at least when it comes to his regimen: training, sprinting, lifting, batting practice four to five times a week and continuing to develop his fundamentals.

Balancing both sports, which he has done the past few years, has come naturally. Knowing his father played both sports normalized it for him. It's what he grew up with and all he's known. He's watched film and studied Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, both of whom reached stardom in the NFL and MLB.

"Deion was incredible at both sports, but Bo Jackson was the offensive guy," Robinson said. "He was an outfielder, as well, so I've always looked up to him a little more than Deion. But, obviously, Deion is a super big inspiration as well."

Robinson says he believes he can make it to both the NFL and MLB and wants to try for as long as coaches and organizations will let him. The NFL doesn't allow athletes to enter the draft until they're three years removed from high school, which gives him his timeline for football, but his MLB path will largely depend on his development in the minor leagues.

His path in both sports could also be impacted by the results of the MLB draft. If he's selected in the first few rounds, would the bonus money be enough to get him to choose baseball over football? Would an MLB organization try to convince him to stick with baseball and spurn college? Does he end up being a two-sport collegiate athlete with his dream of the pros still in front of him?

The next few months can determine how the next few years will play out and how quickly he reaches his goals. He can't predict everything that'll happen, how long he'll have to grind it out in the minors, or what his NFL draft stock could look like in 2026 or 2027.

Right now, Robinson is focused only on the present and what's in front of him. As his summer of change approaches, as he prepares to take his skills to two new levels, Dominic can't help but think about that little boy telling his father he made his all-star team.

"This will be a busy summer and it will start to get real when he reports to his school in June," Dominic said. "He'll do that while also preparing to become a major league baseball player. That's a childhood dream and it's just something that ... I can't believe that he's doing it.

"How cool is that?"