TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's become custom under Nick Saban at Alabama to have the first day of preseason camp split into two sessions: one for the veterans during the day and one for the freshmen at night. It's done that way, Saban says, to give rookies the chance to take multiple reps and learn the drills, rather than being the last guy in line.
It was under the lights on Aug. 2 that we saw A'Shawn Robinson. The true freshman from Texas was big, massive really. At 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds, he was easily the most physically imposing player on the field. His shaved head, unkempt beard and cold brown eyes intimidated. Senior offensive guard Anthony Steen would later say he looked like a "30-year-old man."
"What we saw in him was a very big, athletic guy that had tremendous potential," Saban said of Robinson. "A very good football player in high school. A very good basketball player, an all-around athlete.
"We didn't know how he would develop."
From the first day of practice on, Robinson has gotten better. He's taken his raw talent and refined it, picking up the subtle differences between the nose and end positions while impressing the coaching staff with his ability to understand his assignment on each play. He's done what very few freshmen at Alabama have by showing Saban enough to make an immediate impact on the defensive line. Quietly, he's become one of the most impressive freshmen defenders in the SEC.
Today, Robinson is tied for first in the league among freshmen with four sacks. He started his first game against Tennessee last weekend. His four quarterback hurries lead Alabama's defense. His five tackles for loss ranks second on the team, trailing only All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley for the lead.
If he maintains his current pace, he'll finish with the most sacks ever for a true freshman defensive lineman during Saban's time at Alabama.
"He's a big, powerful guy who does a really job of pushing the pocket in the middle, and that's something that we really need," Saban said. "He's fit a need for us, and he's done a nice job of working hard to improve. I think some of the older players on the team have enhanced his development with their leadership and the example that they've set and how they've sort of adopted him and helped him to continue to improve."
One of those older players, Mosley, has benefitted from Robinson's emergence up front.
"He’s so young, he has a lot of raw talent," Mosley said. "He’s going to get way better. I would love to play with him a couple more years. But Coach is going to do a great job with him. We’ve got a lot of young guys like that -- Jonathan Allen and some of our younger DBs that are going to be great when they get older. So it’s going to take time. They’ve got to get them to mold. They’ve got to get that experience. But in due time, they’re going to be some great players."
We'll find out next Saturday against 13th-ranked LSU if Robinson is ready to be a great player on the big stage. LSU likes to run the ball between the tackles, and its quarterback, Zach Mettenberger, is a pocket passer who has struggled at times under pressure. How Robinson and the rest of the defensive line play could determine the outcome of the game.
Robinson played well in another big game against Texas A&M earlier in the season, but he was an unknown then. Like the first day of camp back in August, we were seeing the beginning of his evolution. Even more is expected of him now.