Ask Tayvion Robinson about the 2019 Belk Bowl and he’ll smile.

At the time, he was a true freshman receiver at Virginia Tech, but he was already a starter. Robinson watched his team jaw with Kentucky during the Belk Bowl festivities leading up to the matchup in Charlotte, including the pregame fight. But until the final 20 minutes of the back-and-forth game, Robinson had yet to have his “welcome to college moment.”

That came when Kentucky safety Yusef Corker dropped the hammer on him after catching a pass over the middle.

“That’s the hardest hit I’ve taken in college,” Robinson told SDS. “I’ve taken some hits, but that one was different.”

It was different not just because he was forced to the sidelines after converting the 4th-and-8 late in a tie game (Hendon Hooker was actually the one who delivered the pass). It was different because Corker’s hit, which was reviewed but ultimately not called for targeting, took a quarter-sized chunk out the side of Robinson’s mouth after he bit his cheek (he wasn’t wearing a mouthpiece that day). ESPN cameras caught the Hokies’ slot receiver spitting up blood on the sidelines in between swigs of water. Somehow, he returned to action just a couple of plays later.

But that hit? Yeah, it made a lasting impression.

“That was definitely a wakeup call right there,” Robinson said. “That was my first time ever playing against an SEC team so I was like, ‘OK, they play ball.'”

Go figure that 3 years after Robinson’s SEC baptism, he’s set to play ball for that same Kentucky program. Though to be fair, he, nor anyone, could’ve predicted it would ever make sense for an accomplished receiver to transfer from Virginia Tech to Kentucky. After all, the latter half of 2019 was the Lynn Bowden show. After Bowden switched from receiver to quarterback, Kentucky’s already-run heavy offense leaned into that even more. The Wildcats only completed 6 passes in the Belk Bowl. Even in a post-Bowden world in 2020, Arizona State was the only Power 5 team that attempted fewer passes per game than Kentucky.

It wasn’t until the 2021 season that Mark Stoops overhauled his zone-read, run-heavy offense for a modern pro-style approach with Sean McVay-type concepts. Stoops’ hire of Rams assistant Liam Coen helped fuel the transfer and breakout season of Wan’Dale Robinson, who went on to become a 2nd round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

It was Wan’Dale’s emergence — along with a coaching staff change at Virginia Tech — that pushed Tayvion across 2019 Belk Bowl enemy lines to Kentucky. “It was like I could go there and have the same opportunity,” he said.

No, there’s no relation between Tayvion and Wan’Dale, though the similarities are off the charts.

One could be fooled because both:

  • A) Transferred to Kentucky from non-SEC Power 5 schools
  • B) Played 2/3 of their WR snaps in the slot as sub-6 foot receivers and contributed in the return game
  • C) Were 4-star recruits in the 2019 class
  • D) Have the last name “Robinson”
  • E) All the above

It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”

Tayvion and Wan’Dale won’t necessarily be carbon copies of each other. Tayvion is lankier compared to the more compact Wan’Dale. But in an ideal world, the former will produce like the latter did during an All-SEC campaign.

There’s perhaps another key difference between the Robinson receivers. Unlike Wan’Dale, who left Nebraska to stop being used as a tailback in order to start playing receiver exclusively in his pre-draft season, Tayvion boasts 3 years of starting receiver experience at the Power 5 level. He has 113 catches for 1,555 yards and 15 touchdowns, as well as 29 rushes for 227 yards.

There will also be a difference in play-caller. With Coen reuniting with the Los Angeles Rams as McVay’s new offensive coordinator, Stoops stayed within the McVay/Kyle Shanahan tree and hired San Francisco 49ers OC Rich Scangarello. As a result, Tayvion’s film study includes plenty of Deebo Samuel and Cooper Kupp. Well, in addition to Wan’Dale, of course.

But don’t get it twisted. Tayvion might run the occasional jet sweep, but he isn’t expecting to step into the hybrid “wide back” role of Samuel, who averaged 4 carries per game and had 8 rushing touchdowns for the 49ers in 2021. “He’s built a little different,” Robinson noted.

There should still be plenty of opportunity for Robinson to get touches in the 2022 version of Kentucky’s offense. Sure, it’ll be a new coordinator with some tweaks on the system, but it’s still Will Levis behind center. Levis helped Wan’Dale break Kentucky’s single-season receptions record with an absurd 104 catches.

Even though Levis’ return wasn’t officially announced when Tayvion decided to commit to Kentucky in mid-December, the banana-peel eating quarterback was a significant part of the recruiting pitch. Before his return announcement went live later in the month, Levis mentioned to Robinson that he’d be returning to school and that they’d be able to work together (the NFL Draft buzz for Levis is at a much different place now than it was in December).

The 2 spent the offseason building that chemistry. When Robinson sees he has a mismatch at the line of scrimmage, he doesn’t need to signal for Levis’ attention. That connection is already there between the veteran skill-players.

Don’t necessarily assume that’ll be exclusive to situations in which Robinson gets lined up against a linebacker in the slot. He made plenty of highlight-reel plays winning battles on the outside or downfield:

He’s never lacked versatility. The shiftiness that allowed him to become an exceptional route-runner also allowed him to become a standout slashing guard at Cox High School (Va.). Robinson’s move to Kentucky in the spring semester marked his first time living outside of the state of Virginia. As loyal as the Virginia Beach native is to the 757 — his childhood idols were fellow Virginia natives Allen Iverson, Michael Vick, Bruce Smith and DeAngelo Hall — he knew he wanted to leave the state for his senior season.

(Robinson actually has 2 years of eligibility left because the 2020 season didn’t count against anyone. His decision to spend 2023 in Lexington will come down to how 2022 plays out.)

The downside of that is that his family won’t be there to watch every game he plays. It’s about an 8-9 hour drive from Virginia Beach to Lexington, so it might be more of an every-other-week type of schedule for the Robinson family.

“Sometimes they like to watch the games on TV. A little more entertaining,” Robinson said with a laugh.

They might have to make weekly trips if Robinson follows in the footsteps of a couple Kentucky legends. Randall Cobb and the aforementioned Bowden, both of whom were high school quarterbacks, were called upon to make the midseason switch from receiver to quarterback. In addition to playing both receiver and running back in high school, Robinson was also a quarterback. As a senior, he had 539 passing yards and 1,096 rushing yards with 21 touchdowns.

Two questions are worth asking. For starters, would he be willing to serve as an emergency quarterback if needed?

“Of course,” Robinson said. “Given that I played quarterback, I’ve got a little bit of understanding, but obviously at this level, it’s completely different. But if the opportunity did come, I would take it … if they asked.”

The other question is obvious — how far can he sling it?

“I’d give you a 60-65 yard ball,” Robinson said. “I’ve got an arm on me.”

Take note, defensive coordinators.

For Kentucky’s sake, hopefully that situation doesn’t present itself. In an ideal world, Robinson’s only 60-65 yard tosses would come on some sort of trick play and not as the result of an injury to Levis and backups Beau Allen and Deuce Hogan.

In an ideal world, Robinson will accomplish the same thing that Wan’Dale did. That is, become a reliable, dynamic go-to target for Levis. The ability to create mismatches and stretch the field to open up the play-action game is something that Kentucky’s new weapon hopes to provide.

As much as he’d like to make a name for himself, it’d be a positive for Tayvion if he gets mistaken for Wan’Dale in 2022. That’s high praise. At the same time, perhaps it’s unfair to say the expectation should be a historic 104-catch, 1,348-yard season for a 10-win team. Wan’Dale at least showed that in this modern version of Kentucky’s offense, that type of production is possible.

Time will tell how loud of an impact Tayvion makes in his new home. He’s got a prime opportunity waiting. No crystal ball would’ve shown him this kind of ending back in 2019.

Welcome to the SEC. Time to play ball.