During a recent Arizona State football practice, Gerell Robinson lined up at wide receiver, ran a quick slant pattern and could not reach the pass as it sailed a few feet in front of him.
That caused one of the team’s linebackers to speak up, repeating the kind of chatter that Robinson, a highly touted, amazingly gifted true freshman, has heard since the start of fall drills.
“Come on, Mr. All-American! You’re supposed to dive and pull that ball in, Mr. All-American!”
Robinson jogged back to the huddle, reacting to the good-natured taunt in the same manner he deals with sky-high expectations for him as a Sun Devil — by putting on the mile-wide smile that suggests he cannot be rattled.
“The way I handle things is just smile at everybody, whether it’s positive or negative,” said Robinson, a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder who was perhaps ASU’s most prized 2008 recruit. “It’s been mainly positive and fun here so far. …
“I like the pressure. I’m that kind of person. If the game is on the line, I want the ball.”
Robinson, a national top-100 prospect while at Chandler Hamilton High School as a dual-threat quarterback and part-time receiver, was expected to play this year from the moment he signed with ASU in February.
With starting receivers Chris McGaha and Michael Jones out due to injury, Robinson has worked with the first-team offense in recent practices, showing solid skills and route-running for someone who did not play the position much in high school.
“There’s a lot of hype with Gerell, but I know what kind of a guy he is,” quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. “He’s a hard worker who wants to be good. He’s going to be good for us. He’s mentally exhausted because he has had to learn so much, but once he gets over that, he’ll be fine.”
During the recruiting process, Robinson had the hype — super-sized. He was the top player at what has become Arizona’s showcase high school program, rated No. 1 in the state by recruiting services and invited to play in the U.S. Army All-American Game in New Orleans.
During NBC’s broadcast of the Jan. 5 game, Robinson announced his college choice: ASU, over Notre Dame. Sun Devil fans were thrilled, and the fact that three months earlier, Robinson had rescinded a verbal commitment to Arizona, made the news even sweeter.
After pledging to the Wildcats as a quarterback, Robinson decided that his future was as a receiver.
Not long after decommitting to UA, he was often seen at ASU practices, wearing his smile and being one of the guys. Still, for some time, he felt he was Notre Dame-bound.
“It wasn’t until just before I went to the All-American game,” Robinson said. “That was when I changed my mind. I took my visit here, and that opened my eyes. It just felt right, and I’ve been here pretty much every day since I signed, learning about everything.
“I really don’t feel like a freshman since I’ve been around here so much. But the older players remind me, so I guess that’s a good thing.”
His credentials did not give Robinson a sense of entitlement. Although he was still a high school student, he attended almost every spring practice.
He faithfully attended summer workouts and buried himself in the playbook.
“Gerell doesn’t have a big head at all,” receivers coach Eric Yarber said. “He listens and is coachable. …
“He needs to polish up his routes, and he knows that. He’s on me every day, saying, 'Coach, how did I do on that one? Am I getting better?’ He wants to be great. And because of that, the sky is going to be the limit for him.”
Robinson does not flaunt his athleticism and talent, but make no mistake: He knows how much he has of both.
Asked if he is surprised by how smoothly the transition to receiver has been, he said, “For anyone else, I think that it would be a big adjustment. But for me, I was able to grasp everything well. I’m blessed.”
He talks of helping the Sun Devils to a Pac-10 championship, but Robinson also dreams of being named a freshman All-American.
“I have a lot of personal goals, and I’ll work to achieve them,” Robinson said. “But I don’t think I’m better than anyone else.
“I’m sure that people think guys who come in with a lot of (fanfare) are a little cocky, but I don’t think my teammates feel that about me. I think I’m a normal kid.”