If he's eligible for Kentucky, Wan'Dale Robinson will be the sport's most impactful non-QB transfer in 2021
That’s the word that we should keep coming back to when describing Wan’Dale Robinson.
If you’re unfamiliar with that name, here’s a rundown:
Robinson was once Kentucky’s “one who got away.” The Frankfort, Ky., native was the top player from the Bluegrass State in the 2019 class, and up until December 2018, the top-100 recruit was committed to Mark Stoops’ program. Instead, Kentucky fans had to watch Robinson flip to Nebraska, where he became the team’s best offensive player in his first 2 seasons of college.
As a freshman in 2019, he was a Paul Hornung Award finalist as one of the 4 most versatile players in college football. The award went to, ironically enough, Lynn Bowden. As a sophomore in 2020, Robinson had nearly 4 times as many catches as any other Nebraska wide receiver.
As a junior in 2021, he’ll no longer be Kentucky’s “one who got away.” Instead, he’ll be the one who will get away from many an SEC defense.
Robinson announced last week that he’ll be returning to his home state to continue his college career, where he’ll technically have 3 years of eligibility left due to 2020 not counting against the 4-year total. While it’s not a given that Robinson will be immediately eligible because of NCAA transfer rules, he did cite his grandma’s post-COVID complications as his reasoning for returning to his home state. One would think the odds of a high-profile player like Robinson receiving a hardship waiver are likely.
That’s not rare. What’s rare is that a non-quarterback of Robinson’s skill level transferred just before his pre-draft year. Rare it is that a player would make such a move without a coaching change.
And now Kentucky, in Year 1 with Liam Coen’s new Sean McVay-style offense, has a weapon as rare as any in college football. If he’s eligible, you won’t find a non-quarterback transfer who will make a bigger impact on their team than Robinson. He is that good already.
Robinson was expected to be to Nebraska what Rondale Moore was to Purdue. It wasn’t a lack of skill or work ethic that prevented Robinson from doing that. He was Pro Football Focus’ No. 6 receiver in the Big Ten in 2020. It Robinson’s usage in Scott Frost’s offense that prevented him from becoming a household name. Instead of force-feeding Robinson targets like Jeff Brohm did with Moore, who was a first-team All-American as a true freshman, Frost was too reliant on Robinson in the ground game. Robinson totaled 134 carries compared to 91 catches in his 2 seasons with the Huskers.
There are a few reasons Robinson and Moore have been linked together for the last few years, and it isn’t just because they share similar first names or that they played in the Big Ten West.
One year apart in age, they both came out of high school as the No. 1 recruit in the state of Kentucky. They became close friends. In the offseason, Robinson used to travel 45 minutes each way to Vaughn’s Aspirations Fitness Institution Louisville, where he’d train with Moore and other top prospects in the area. Both are extremely similar in build, hovering somewhere in the 5-9, 175-185 pound range, and both are devastating in space. They line up anywhere, they make people miss and in the right hands, they’re an offensive play-caller’s best friend:
Wan’Dale Robinson with some serious sauce downfield to get into the endzone! The Huskers would go on to defeat Illinois, 42-38.
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 25, 2019
What if I told you that after that aforementioned score, Robinson had to wait another 15 months (!) for his next receiving touchdown. He was banged up in the final month of his freshman season, but Nebraska’s inept passing game was why he went 13 games without a receiving touchdown. No Power 5 team had fewer passing touchdowns than Nebraska (5) in 2020. That includes Pac-12 teams, some of whom only played 4 games. Even Kentucky, which ranked No. 113 of 127 FBS teams in passing efficiency, had more passing scores (7) than Nebraska.
Of course, one of those teams is totally revamping its offense while the other is not. Not coincidentally, Robinson is going to the team with the new offense.
A major offseason priority for Coen will be figuring out the best way to maximize the quick, explosive Robinson. Bunch-receiver sets, advanced route concepts and innovative run-play designs are all going to be part of this new-look Kentucky offense. No longer will Kentucky be the predictable, run-focused team. Granted, the Cats still have Chris Rodriguez, who is Pro Football Focus’ top-rated returning running back in America. The ground game will still be emphasized, though Robinson figures to be used more like a Los Angeles Rams version of Robert Woods instead of an Ohio State version of Curtis Samuel, who essentially had a 50-50 run-catch split.
Robinson, AKA the guy who set Nebraska’s true freshman records for receptions and receiving yards, should soon garner closer comps to his buddy, Moore. He’ll no longer be relied on to get so many touches in the ground game because of Frost’s inability to scheme receivers open. Who knows if he’ll be used in the kickoff return game like he was as a true freshman, but if I had to guess, I’d assume Robinson won’t be a gunner on punt coverage like he was at times with Nebraska.
It’ll be pre-snap motion, screens, pop passes and, occasionally, Robinson will be used to stretch the defense vertically. Coen’s goal should be to do for Robinson what Brohm consistently did for Moore. That is, move him all over the place to get him big windows to catch passes in space. That’s where we’ll see Robinson’s next-level acceleration displayed.
Want an SEC comp for Robinson? Sure. In an ideal world, Robinson will be for Kentucky in 2021 what Kadarius Toney was for Florida in 2020. What made Toney such a revelation in 2020 was that in addition to having Dan Mullen scheming him open, the converted quarterback developed into a superior route-runner who showed he could catch passes in traffic. In order for Robinson to fulfill that type of potential, he’ll need to make more plays like the one he had in his last game at Nebraska:
— Justin Groc (@jgroc) December 19, 2020
If Robinson starts doing that consistently, we’re talking about a different kind of matchup nightmare. Again, that’s assuming he’ll be eligible immediately in 2021.
Besides his eligibility situation, the other unknown is who will be running Coen’s offense. Former Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood was billed as the future, though that was for Gran’s system. Coen already compared hometown hero Beau Allen to Jared Goff, which suggests there’s an obvious fit for his offensive vision. Whether it’s Allen or Gatewood, we’re still talking about guys with a combined 1 career start and 49 career pass attempts against SEC competition (Gatewood averaged 3.6 yards per attempt in his lone start). A learning curve is to be expected.
Fortunately for them, they just added one of the top weapons in the sport. Even in the transfer portal era, rarely does that happen to established non-quarterbacks without a coaching staff change.
It took a little longer than some Kentucky fans wanted, but the timing finally lined up for Robinson to return to the state where he racked up 8,582 yards from scrimmage with 118 offensive touchdowns as a high school football legend. Robinson’s legend has a chance to grow in a major way in 2021. If he’s eligible, he’ll sit atop every opposing defensive coordinator’s scouting report.
Robinson has a chance to be special in Lexington. Whether he looks like Moore, Toney or even Texas A&M’s Ainias Smith, Robinson will develop his own identity in this new chapter of his career.
And if it’s anything like the last time he did his thing in the Bluegrass State, well, that Kroger Field scoreboard is about to see a whole lot more action in 2021.