How Wan'Dale Robinson and Liam Coen joined forces to become a revelation in Lexington
LEXINGTON — In a meeting room on the second floor of Kentucky’s football facility, Liam Coen is sitting at the head of a table chatting with a visiting reporter when the door opens. The Wildcats’ first-year offensive coordinator doesn’t skip a beat as he turns his chair so that he can dap up the guy who entered the room rocking an olive drab green hoody. It’s Wan’Dale Robinson, whom Coen just spent the better part of the last half hour heaping praise onto.
Coen is never lacking words to describe Robinson — the Kentucky OC openly calls him the team’s best offensive player — which is fitting. In his first year back in his home state, the Nebraska transfer is the talk of the town. The former Kentucky Mr. Football winner is the SEC’s leading receiver, he reportedly has at least 6 figures worth of NIL money rolling in and above all else, Robinson’s million-dollar smile is the face of Coen’s new Sean McVay-inspired offense in Lexington.
“(Coen) and I were both really excited to add Wan’Dale to our roster,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops told SDS on the SEC Coaches Teleconference. “What I love about Liam and the offense is it’s easy for him to target guys. They do a good job of targeting the receivers … we felt like he could be a great addition and he certainly has been.”
That’s an understatement. “Revelation” is a better way to describe Robinson’s impact in Coen’s offense.
Together, Coen and Robinson helped the program to its first 6-0 start since a 37-year-old Paul “Bear” Bryant led the Cats to that mark in 1950. No. 11 Kentucky will face the ultimate test Saturday in Athens against No. 1 Georgia and Kirby Smart’s all-world defense.
Regardless of what happens in a game that’s essentially the SEC East Championship, what’s undeniable is that Coen and Robinson have become synonymous with the new era of Kentucky offense. A passing attack that ranked outside of the top 115 in FBS each of the past 3 seasons now has life.
Go figure that Kentucky’s offensive awakening came from a couple of guys who, at this time last year, didn’t know each other existed.
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In January, Coen had to be sold before he could do his own selling.
Let’s back up a second.
At the time, Coen had just accepted his first job as a play-caller at the FBS level (he called plays at FCS Maine in 2016-17). That happened after Coen wowed Stoops, who was in desperate need for a modern but balanced offensive approach, with a 300-play film breakdown during an informal meeting over drinks in the Los Angeles home of comedian Russell Peters. Coen promised to bring McVay’s offensive concepts to Lexington. Before Coen could even get 1/4 of the way through his breakdown, Stoops stopped him. He was sold. The 35-year-old Rams assistant had the gig.
Coen’s first pitch was a successful one. Before he made another pitch, he needed to sell himself on a player. A hybrid playmaker from Nebraska named “Wan’Dale Robinson” entered the transfer portal in early January. He was frustrated with his role in Scott Frost’s offense (more on that later) and combined with his mother’s COVID complications, Robinson sought a place to play that was closer to his Frankfort, Kentucky family.
Stoops and some of Kentucky’s staff were familiar with Robinson, who committed to the program before flipping to Nebraska as a high school senior because of his fear that Kentucky’s offense was too run-heavy (that proved to be quite ironic). Coen, however, still wanted to do his homework on Robinson.
The newly hired Kentucky OC knew someone who worked closely with Robinson at Nebraska, and he also reached out to former Nebraska quarterback and current Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor. Before they got to their current jobs, Coen and Taylor were assistants on the Rams together, so there was a mutual respect when it came to evaluating a player’s fit in the McVay-style offense.
Needless to say, it didn’t take long to sell Coen on Robinson.
“Then you turn the film on,” Coen told SDS, “and he’s just so dynamic doing so many good things. That was a key piece to this whole thing. This was a huge piece. Once he was in the portal and I was officially signed on here, and I was able to talk to him and get to know him … he reminded me a lot more of the guys I was around (with the Rams) than the other younger guys I’ve gotten to know.”
Who did Robinson remind Coen of? Cooper Kupp, AKA the Rams’ slot receiver who averaged 93 catches for 1,068 yards in Coen’s last 2 seasons with the Rams. It was Kupp who taught Coen, a former UMass quarterback, some of the intricacies of route-running after he joined the Rams in 2018. That’s why Kupp was the blueprint for Coen’s pitch to Robinson.
“That’s literally all we talked about,” Coen said.
And yeah, it worked. But not until Robinson did his own homework, of course. He reached out to Cupp for a full scouting report on Coen.
“(Cupp) was like, ‘Dude, you’re gonna love it. You’re gonna get the catches, you’re gonna get the targets. I promise you’re gonna get the ball with (Coen),’” Robinson told SDS. “So I was like, that sold me. I’m good.”
There was another key caveat to Coen’s Kentucky pitch. It wasn’t the volume of touches that Robinson sought. “Quality over quantity,” he says. It was no secret that Robinson didn’t want to play running back like he was asked to do at times during his 2 prolific years at Nebraska. He has since spoken candidly about playing in a role that he saw for himself at the NFL level instead of making cut blocks against blitzing linebackers, and doing so in an offense that didn’t utilize pro-style concepts. At least not like Coen’s did.
Coen had (and has) zero plans to line up Robinson in the backfield. He transferred back home to Kentucky to be a receiver and not a part-time one who could plug a hole for a depleted running back room like he did in Lincoln. That was evident on the first day of spring practice at Kentucky.
“I’m actually running routes. I’m running NFL concepts,” Robinson said. “I’m not just in there in the slot, I’m playing the outside position, too, and moving around in a lot of different places. That’s what I’m used to doing. That’s what I was excited about.”
Ask Robinson if Coen has ever used him to make a cut block and he’ll politely say “nah,” with a smile.
Ask Robinson if he misses playing running back and he’ll politely say, “nope, nope, nope. I’m having fun right where I’m at.”
Let’s back up again.
There’s a right way to interpret that and a wrong way to interpret that. The wrong way would be to assume that a player who doesn’t want to cut block is afraid of contact, which couldn’t be further from the truth with Robinson.
“He’s not soft,” Coen said. “He’s a tough, tough dude.”
We saw that in his first game at Kentucky. After Robinson beat his man in press coverage, he proceeded to haul in Will Levis’ pass and bulldoze a poor Louisiana-Monroe safety, who couldn’t stand in the way of Robinson reaching pay dirt.
“That is him in a nutshell,” Coen said. “It’s character. It’s everything you want in a player in terms of the way they approach the game, the way they study the game. And then he goes out and plays like an absolute dog. You want to try to get that kid the ball as many times as you can. He deserves it.”
Wan’dale Robinson gonna be fun to watch in this Kentucky offense in 2021! pic.twitter.com/obL8svMB5e
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) September 6, 2021
If Robinson doesn’t like contact, he certainly doesn’t do a good job of showing it.
“That just comes from my background playing running back. You can’t be afraid to take a hit,” said Robinson, who recorded a 570-pound max squat at Nebraska (Robinson said max squats were more of a thing at Nebraska than at Kentucky). “I’ve always known that I’ve been smaller, but that doesn’t mean I can’t bring a punch. Most people aren’t expecting me to bring a punch, so whenever it does hit ’em, they’re surprised.”
And to be clear, it’s not that Coen can’t use Robinson in running situations. He has 5 carries on the year, including an end-around that went for 64 yards against Mizzou. Those looks, however, weren’t similar to the majority of the 134 carries he got in 2 years at Nebraska.
“It’s a lot different because a lot of those are schemed up to where it’s essentially the 2 tight ends and me, and I have really a read of where I wanna go,” Robinson said. “There’s not a bunch of traffic. So I can really just get in space and do what I do and then if I have to make somebody miss … at that point, it can be house calls.”
Coen lived up to his promise from the initial recruiting pitch. He has yet to line Robinson up in the backfield for a single snap — not even to run a route — which he admitted is tempting. There are ways in which Coen could use Robinson to line up in motion and start in the backfield just to get the defense to tip its hand with whether it’s in man or zone coverage.
Instead, Coen would rather do right by his guy and avoid those potential Nebraska flashbacks.
“That’s the stigma that he was trying to get away from, that he’s a ‘gadget guy,’” Coen said. “But he’s the type of kid that at this point, I believe there’s a trust and a belief in his usage and what we’re trying to do with him. So I guarantee you that if it was, ‘Hey, game is on the line, we’re gonna put you in the backfield and you’re gonna run a route,’ he would do whatever it takes.”
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In the short time they’ve known each other, Robinson and Coen developed an open line of communication. It’s mostly texts about ball. Coen started by sending Robinson clips from games to illustrate a receiver’s get-off or how he got separation at the top of the route. Robinson always has a response or a clip of his own ready. Days before Kentucky’s game against LSU, they went back and forth breaking down a route they saw from Hunter Renfrow on Monday Night Football.
Coen will also text with his former Rams buddies McVay and Kupp about the things Robinson does in the offense. Ten minutes into the game against Florida, Coen scripted a jailbreak screen of sorts for Robinson. It worked in practice against Kentucky’s first-team defense, which was as good a sign as any for Coen. All it took was Will Levis making a quick on-target throw to Robinson, a clear-out block on Florida’s corner by Kavosiey Smoke, some nice downfield blocking by the Kentucky offensive line and of course, Robinson’s signature dead leg in space did the rest. Six points.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 2, 2021
After that play helped Kentucky beat Florida in Lexington for the first time since 1986, Coen got a text from McVay.
“Hey, great job with the screen. We’re gonna take that one.”
Coen might not be able to recall plays quite at the level of his former boss, but he has no problem digging into the archives to illustrate a concept.
It’s fitting that the defining offensive play of Coen’s first year in Lexington involved Robinson. In their first SEC game working alongside one another, Kentucky held a 35-28 lead against Mizzou. Facing 3rd-and-12 on their own 26-yard line with just over 6 minutes left to play, the Wildcats were in desperate need of a big-time conversion to keep the emerging Mizzou offense off the field.
There was a 3rd-down play that Coen felt confident in, but 3rd-and-12 was a different challenge. It was a pivotal moment for Coen. He wasn’t brought in to run a 3rd-down draw to the tailback in hopes that the defense could put the game away. It was Coen’s job to make the adjustment and find the mismatch.
At that point, Robinson had been saying all game that he was getting press coverage, so he told Levis “if he’s standing flat-footed, I can beat him over the top.” Sure enough, Mizzou came out in that same look to defend Kentucky’s 5-wide set. Little did anyone at home know that even though there were technically 5 pass-catching options, Robinson was the only real option. Coen had the running back on a go-route to clear space, there were hitches on the outside and then there was Robinson, who had to get separation on a fade route from of the slot against Mizzou’s press man coverage.
“It was just a moment where I saw (Mizzou) press our best player,” Coen said, “and I don’t think that’s a good thing.”
Levis saw it, too.
“I just say, ‘Hey, Wan’Dale is better than that guy. I just need to look off that safety who’s playing off really high and I can drop it in there for a first down,’” Levis told SDS in September. “That was our best man-beater for that play, so that’s pretty much all I was thinking.”
Bingo. Perfect scheme, perfect recognition, perfect route, perfect throw. Thirty-three yards. First down.
New offensive identity? You’d better believe it.
“It was a big moment for our offense,” Coen said. “Have we put it together every single week yet? No, but there were moments, specifically that one, that give you trust in the system, that give you trust in your players to go out and execute in a moment like that.”
It’s trust that got Kentucky to this point. Stoops put his faith in Coen to overhaul the offense. Coen put his faith in Robinson to be the game-changing receiver in the middle of it all. That foundation helped lead Kentucky to a historic start.
We don’t know what awaits Robinson beyond 2021.
Coen cited that the difference in how pass interference is called at the NFL level could actually benefit someone like Robinson, who moves so efficiently to get separation at the top of his routes. He could follow the path of his Bluegrass State friend Rondale Moore, who won the Paul Hornung Award in 2018 and became a second-round pick by the Cardinals in 2018. Never mind the fact that the former Purdue star isn’t exactly close to 6 feet like Robinson is. “He’s making me money,” Robinson said with a laugh.
In the meantime, Robinson is focused on leading his home-state program to new heights. He’s not concerned about becoming Kentucky’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Randall Cobb in 2010, though he’s on pace to do just that. Robinson would rather spend his time working on his craft so that he can continue to develop in Coen’s offense.
After all, it’s quality over quantity.