A Knight's tale
Once Miami bound, No. 1 prospect content to be at Rutgers
Updated: Friday August 22, 2003 2:12PM
By Luke Winn, SI.com
When Nate Robinson arrived for Rutgers' training camp on Aug. 5, he was in a strange condition. On his first day at college, the 305-pound blue-chip freshman defensive lineman was afflicted with an abscess in one of his teeth. Head coach Greg Schiano recalled Robinson's mug as "all blown up." The practice field could wait -- he had to see a dentist.
"It was a little crazy for the first couple of days," Robinson said. "I couldn't really talk. I checked in, and in 20 minutes, I was at the dentist. I had to tell the guys, 'My tooth is messed up -- I'll talk to you in a few days.' I got it pulled, and now it's back to normal."
Normality had been a fleeting thing for Robinson during the summer after his high school graduation. Just a week before he hauled his luggage to Rutgers, he was getting ready to play for Miami, the school he had committed to back in December. Had Robinson gone to Coral Gables, he would've joined a horde of five-star recruits; now, in Piscataway, N.J., he's the only one.
In matter of days, because of a conflict over a test score, the mammoth prospect had changed his destination from the Big East's powerhouse to the Big East's cellar. And the cellar welcomed Robinson, a monumental recruit for its program, with open arms.
"Even though it was a negative thing that happened, I wasn't feeling too bad, 'cause a positive thing came out of it," Robinson said. "I don't fault Miami for anything; I'm just here at Rutgers, at home, where I'm happy."
A week before Signing Day, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano still hadn't given up on Nate Robinson -- the third-year coach had the kid sitting in his office at the Hale Center on campus. Robinson was, after all, bred -- and bred to a substantial size -- in the Scarlet Knights' territory, just 40 minutes away in Irvington, N.J.
Problem was, for Rutgers, that this 6-foot-5, 305-pound defensive tackle wasn't just the top overall prospect in New Jersey, he was the No. 1-ranked defensive lineman in the entire country. And Rutgers, over the past four seasons, ranks No. 115 (out of 117) in D I-A winning percentage. Not exactly an alluring statistic for a blue-chip prospect.
Robinson and his family had one last discussion with Schiano, a convincing salesman for the Rutgers program. And Robinson knew this much: He was already comfortable in Piscataway; the Scarlet Knights had been pursuing him ever since it was permissible by the NCAA. His family was already close with Schiano and much of the coaching staff. His sister had graduated from there in 1999. And he had friends at Rutgers, older guys whom he would drive out to visit while still in high school.
But Robinson also knew a national No. 1 prospect has national options; namely, an offer from Miami. He had made a verbal commitment to the Hurricanes on his visit there in December, and said he was "positive -- no ifs, ands or buts about it" that his mind was made up.
Rutgers lost out on Robinson on Signing Day, but no crying ensued -- when you're Rutgers, losing to Miami is old hat. Schiano knew first-hand the allure of the 'Canes, having spent two years there as the defensive coordinator before returning to his home state to coach the Knights.
"I was disappointed, but I understood," Schiano said. "Up to the very end, Nate was torn between the great relationships he had at Rutgers and the chance to play with the No. 1 team in country -- and that's a very tempting thing for a recruit."
Little did Schiano know that by the final week in July, Robinson would be back in his office. And not just to say his goodbyes before reporting to training camp at Miami on Aug. 3 (Thanks coach, catch me shutting down your running game in a few years.). There had been a problem with Miami's admissions department, and Robinson was ready to play football elsewhere. Miami's rejection was about to become Rutgers' bounty.
In his final attempt at the SATs, Robinson, who had a GPA near 3.0, had scored an 800, the minimum number required by the NCAA Clearinghouse's new sliding scale -- but it was 20 points shy of what Miami required to gain admission. He was faced with two options: What Miami wanted him to do -- retake the SAT in September and hope to enroll in December -- and what he wanted to do -- get released from his letter of intent and play for school closer to home.
Robinson had saved himself the disappointment of moving down to Coral Gables for summer workouts, then having to pack up and high-tail it back the Garden State when his test score didn't pan out. He had stayed in Irvington, to be close to his family and his girlfriend.
Schiano was presented with another opportunity to land Nate Robinson, who would be immediately eligible for a scholarship at Rutgers. Never mind the fact that North Carolina was hot on Robinson's trail; Schiano wasn't going to lose this kid again. On June 30, five days before Rutgers' camp would open, Robinson was back in Schiano's office, listening to the encore pitch.
"We got Nate and his father to come down here, and we spent a few hours together," Schiano said. "By then, Nate knew this place better than some of our kids. We just sat in the office, talking, and went through all the alternatives.
"I said to Nate, 'It came down to the end. It was Miami and Rutgers. Miami won out, but there was a reason you felt comfortable about Rutgers.' We talked about all those things -- the level of trust he had in us, and the level of comfort he had here."
It all struck a chord with Robinson, who, even before the trouble with Miami, was having second thoughts about moving so far south. "[The Rutgers coaches] showed me the light," he said. "I realized, it wouldn't be right to be out of the state. I'm like 30 minutes away from home, and my family can be at every game. I'd be homesick at Miami or North Carolina. I just decided to stay in Jersey, and it'll happen here."
Worth the wait
Robinson won't make an instant splash; don't expect to see his name in the starting lineup for the Scarlet Knights' season opener vs. Buffalo on Aug. 30. The effects of a knee injury that sidelined him during his senior prep season are still lingering, and Schiano wants to bring the prize of his recruiting class along slowly.
"This is the first active thing I've been doing since I hurt my knee," Robinson said. "The coaches made out a big plan for me, with rehab, strength and conditioning. I'll be ready for the first Big East game [vs. Virginia Tech on Oct. 4]."
Nevertheless, the impact of landing a mammoth defensive tackle whom Miami held in high regard will be felt on the Rutgers campus. On a team that recorded just 15 sacks in 2002 to its opponents' 55; which allowed 2,484 net rushing yards to its own 620, a behemoth in the middle will be a godsend. And if Robinson goes on to have a successful career, it could give the Scarlet Knights leverage on future in-state recruits.
For Schiano, it's not an issue that perhaps his program's biggest recruit came secondhand. He's not concerned about the academic circumstances that kept Robinson out of Florida and in New Jersey. When Nate Robinson wanted to come back to Rutgers, there were no hard feelings. Schiano's door had always been open.
"You can't be too prideful," Schiano said. "Sometimes things come your way, and you have to be grateful."
Luke Winn covers college football for SI.com.