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WEST LAFAYETTE -- Ask the question and Purdue's Sean Robinson doesn't hesitate. He's been through too much, come too far, succeeded too often.
Does he see himself as a quarterback playing linebacker or just a linebacker?
“If Coach asked me to play quarterback, I guess I'd do it, but I'm definitely a linebacker now.”
Darrell Hazell isn't about to ask that of Robinson. Neither is offensive coordinator John Shoop. And if they did, linebackers coach Marcus Freeman might just tell them to stick it.
In a nice way, of course.
Robinson is in his third season as a linebacker, his second as a starter. His numbers took a huge jump from his sophomore to junior seasons, from 27 tackles to 45, including two for loss. He's 6-3 and a rock-solid 239 pounds.
Once an afterthought, Hazell thought enough of Robinson to make him one of Purdue's three player representatives in last month's Big Ten football media event in Chicago.
“That meant a lot,” Robinson says. “I've been through some tough times at Purdue. Not a lot, but I changed positions. We had some adversity as a team. We lost our head coach. To have a chance to present the team was a big honor.”
He earned it, Hazell says, for all the right reasons.
“We feel really good about Sean.”
At one point Robinson wondered if it was time to find another school and football program. Can you blame him? He'd been a quarterback all his life, and a darn good one.
And then life got complicated.
As a high school senior in Springfield, Ill., he'd thrown for 2,368 yards and 31 touchdowns against just four interceptions. He also rushed for 1,223 yards and 18 TDs. He led his Rochester team to a 12-1 record and the state semifinals, losing to Metamora 41-40. Rivals.com listed him as the nation's No. 10 dual-threat quarterback. Highly respected recruiting analyst Tom Lemming rated him the nation's No. 6 combo quarterback.
Robinson arrived at Purdue raw and not nearly ready for major college football, but got thrown into it as a true freshman when the three quarterbacks ahead of him all got hurt. He played in five games, started one, and went 44-for-91 with two touchdowns and six interceptions.
The next season Robinson was buried on the depth chart, played in one game and was redshirted. Along the way, enlightenment came. He knew quarterback wasn't a Purdue option, although it might be at another school. Or, he could stay a Boiler, change positions and see what would happen.
Robinson stayed, of course. In an era where changing schools is almost as common as breathing, he vowed to stick to his word and his decision. Loyalty has its rewards, even if it doesn't provide a guarantee.
“When I went through the recruiting process, one of the things I and my father and my high school coach said was, whatever decision I make that's where I stay. That's where my loyalty is.
“As players we owe our universities that loyalty. It shows you want to be there. You want to have success. You have pride in your own team and university.
“Did transfer enter my mind? No question. At the end, it was too much. I would give up too much to transfer, from school, to my teammates, to all the friends and relationships I'd built. It wasn't worth it for me.”
“I couldn't be happier now.”
Happiness again comes without a guarantee. He projects as a starting linebacker in Purdue's 3-4 scheme, but talented freshmen Ja'Wahn Bentley and Gelen Robinson loom behind him. Bentley is 6-2 and 250, and, physically at least, looks NFL ready right now (he's not, but some day he might be). Robinson is 6-1 and 239 pounds, ridiculously strong, impressively athletic (he was an Indiana state champ in wrestling and track at Lake Central High School).
“The presence of those guys pushes me big time,” Sean Robinson says. “Having a guy (Bentley) who looks better than me coming in, has those kind of physical attributes, it makes me look over my shoulder and make sure I'm doing what I need to do to better myself.
“That's the way it should be. There should be competition. I'll do everything I can to push them. They'll do everything they can to push me. That will be good for our team.”
Purdue needs plenty of good after a decade's worth of bad compressed in last year's 1-11 record. The Boilers struggled to score and to stop opponents. They were battered and bruised, but not broken. They are resolved to prove it, and if it sounds overly optimistic for this season, well, Robinson doesn't want to hear it. He's got one last season to make it happen.
“All those goals of being national champions or Big Ten champions, it's important for us to take a a hold of that. To run with it. To believe it. When have those beliefs and goals, good things can happen.”