A time-honored test for high school football coaches to find linemen is to watch for nimble feet on big kids playing basketball in gym class.
Well, in the era of the spread passing game offense, Air Force’s football coaches took that method to another dimension while they recruited Jalen Robinette out Bexley High in suburban Columbus, Ohio. He was high school quarterback the Falcons projected as a Division I college wide receiver.
“Air Force didn’t offer me until they came to a basketball game,” said Robinette, a three-sport athlete in football, basketball and track. “They told me, ‘We want to see if you can catch the ball.’ ”
That might have been the easiest test Robinette has aced. He grew up pounding the rock while preferring the basketball to football.
Three years later Air Force’s triple-option offense features a 6-foot-4, 215-pound wide receiver that would fit in playing a spread offense style. He enters his junior year on a path to rank among Air Force’s leading receivers for a season and a career.
Robinette earned honorable mention All-Mountain West Conference last season as a sophomore with 43 catches for 806 yards and four touchdowns. The total ranks seventh best on Air Force’s single-season chart.
Honorable mention may not sound like much on the surface, but remember Robinette plays in a triple-option offense and in a conference known for other schools flinging the ball around to generate inflated statistics. Those receivers have an edge on all-conference team voting.
The most recent Air Force receiver to earn all-conference honors was Matt Farmer in 1998 and before Farmer it was Ken Carpenter in 1985. That puts a different perspective on Robinette’s honors.
He caught voters’ attention with production that included 18.7 yards per reception. He had two 100-yard games and a long touchdown of 58 yards. His breakout season followed his freshman year with 16 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns. Respectable numbers but not enough to satisfy Robinette.
“I came at my sophomore year with the mentality I wasn’t a freshman anymore,” Robinette said. “I had to extend my game. I showed some flashes my freshman year, but I wanted to be more consistent with my techniques. I wanted to play like a junior or a senior.”
Robinette’s production and the play of quarterback Kale Pearson sparked an Air Force turnaround from 2-10 in 2013 to 10-3 with a win in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl over Western Michigan. Pearson has graduated, but Robinette is confident in his classmate, Nate Romine, taking over behind center.
Romine started five games as a true freshman when the Falcons struggled in 2013 at quarterback. Returning starter Jaleel Awini was kicked off the team and the backups suffered injuries. Thrust into the role, Romine, a 5-11, 195-pounder from Upland, Calif., was 44 of 81 passing for 603 yards with five touchdowns and one interception. He ran 75 times for 205 yards and three TDs.
As a sophomore Romine was Pearson’s backup, and then he established himself No. 1 on the depth chart in spring ball. His 2014 stats were 14 of 30 passes for 208 yards without a touchdown and one pick. He ran 35 times for 97 yards and a TD.
“Nate isn’t really a new quarterback for us,” Robinette said. “He got a shot his freshman year, and we’re comfortable with him. We’ve been friends since Day 1. It’s just a matter of him getting in his reps. He’s great at what he does, and we’re confident in him.”
Robinette will draw increased coverage following last year’s success, so he worked on his role to be a reliable target for Romine.
“My thing right now is to play faster,” he said. “The first year it was grasping the playbook and holding my own. Then it was mentality. Now it’s playing fast with techniques. There were plays (last year) I was counting my steps. I wasn’t playing fast enough. Speed is my focus this year.”
Robinette believes he can top last year’s numbers, although he benefitted from Falcons’ game plans that highlighted Pearson’s passing ability. He also might top contribute to the other end of passing stats. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun hasn’t forgotten Robinette was a high school quarterback. He threw two passes on options plays last year, completing one for a 54-yard touchdown.
But Robinette gave up quarterback dreams in high school. As a receiver recruit, he received a scholarship offer from Bowling Green State of the Mid-American Conference. He also has the size and athleticism to suggest a kid from the heart of the Big Ten could have walked on at Big Ten school.
In fact, he’ll test his talent this year against a Big Ten power in addition to the the usual MWC opponents and the rivalry games with Army and Navy. The Falcons face Michigan State on Sept. 19 at Spartan Stadium.
“I thought about that (walking-on),” Robinette said. “But as a high school kid, I wasn’t thinking about just the college lifestyle. I wanted something with a bigger picture. It didn’t take much convincing for Air Force to recruit me. Once I made my visit to the campus, I was sold.”
And once Air Forces coaches saw him handle a basketball and go up for balls, they were sold on him as a college wide receiver.