Senior quarterback Nick Robinson has often been overlooked during his Penn career. He has just one start in two seasons, and even though he has put up solid numbers, the team has gone in other directions with limited success.
This year, though, things will be different.
“As it has emerged, we really feel Nick Robinson is the best choice for us at quarterback this season," coach Ray Priore said on Saturday.
For the first time in his Penn career, Nick Robinson won't be the backup quarterback. And for Robinson, his journey to becoming a starter is atypical to say the least.
Three years ago, the Quakers had arguably the best quarterback in the Ancient Eight in Alek Torgersen, who threw for 7,025 yards and 52 touchdowns while leading the Red and Blue to two Ivy titles. Coupled with three-time All-Ivy selection Justin Watson at wide receiver, Penn's offense gave conference foes nightmares.
With Torgersen graduating in 2016, the team looked to highly touted prospect Michael Collins as a replacement. Collins — set to enter his sophomore year — instead transferred to TCU, leaving the Quakers with a massive hole in its roster.
At this point, Robinson was running the scout team for the 10-3 Georgia Bulldogs. After finishing out the year, he transferred to Saddleback Community College, where he threw for 2,127 yards and 16 touchdowns and earned All-Conference honors and the team's MVP award.
In 2017, with his NCAA-mandated transfer year behind him, Robinson was cleared to bring his talents to the Red and Blue, where he backed up then-senior Will Fischer-Colbrie. Fischer-Colbrie's hold on the starting job was less than solid, and Robinson appeared in six of 10 games in his first year with the Quakers.
Against Brown that year, Robinson made his first start at Penn, throwing for 173 yards and two touchdowns in a 17-7 win. He also received significant playing time against Yale and Central Connecticut in relief of Fischer-Colbrie, throwing for 287 yards and 3 touchdowns between the two games. On the season, he posted 604 passing yards and six touchdowns, with just one interception. Still, Robinson was often overlooked in a year where Fischer-Colbrie struggled mightily at times.
After the graduation of Fischer-Colbrie, Robinson entered a competition with sophomore Ryan Glover for the starting quarterback job. The quarterback competition was heated early on, and Priore emphasized that he saw great things from both players. However, a lingering hamstring injury impaired Robinson's ability to compete early on, and Glover ended up starting all 10 games for the Quakers.
Glover's first full season as a starter was a mixed bag. He threw for 1,482 yards and seven touchdowns while putting up gaudy rushing numbers against Lehigh and Columbia. However, he tossed six interceptions and especially struggled against Bucknell, Harvard, and Dartmouth. Yet despite his struggles, Glover remained the starter. Again, Robinson was the odd man out.
Robinson still saw significant action throughout the season due to Glover's injuries — tallying 306 yards passing and three touchdowns while seeing action in seven games. Priore emphasized playing both quarterbacks at different times, and he was impressed at each of their work ethics and improvements.
“I think it’s a great competition,” Priore said in September 2018. “I think both [Robinson and Glover] have worked tremendously hard and made huge improvements from last year.”
In the team's season finale at Princeton, Robinson threw for 168 yards and two touchdowns, compared to Glover's 112 yards and zero touchdowns. Robinson didn't completely take over for Glover, though; Priore was insistent on sticking to the team's quarterback rotation.
At the team's post-game conference, he maintained that the quarterback situation was more than what meets the eye, touching on Nick Robinson's injuries and the two quarterbacks' different skill sets.
“Nick in the early part of the year was hampered by a hamstring pull and told us he couldn’t play, so we stuck with Glover,” Priore said after the team's loss to Princeton. “They both manage the game differently and have different playing styles, strengths, and weaknesses. But truth be told, it’s more than just that one position. I think there’s a lot of other positions we have to take a look at as we look to restock and reload as we head into the offseason.”
“I've had injuries in the past, but I've never had a hamstring injury before," Robinson said. "That was frustrating because the only thing that heals it is time, so there's not a whole lot you can do besides stretch and rest."
After the team's crushing loss to Princeton in the season finale, Penn retooled its coaching staff, adding former Monmouth coach Kevin Morris in January as its offensive coordinator. Morris maintained that both players started on equal footing — everyone was competing for a job and no one's job was safe. Morris's offense was going to be more high-paced than John Reagan's offense last year, and the coaches were looking for a quarterback who was comfortable with the playbook and could make pre-snap adjustments if needed.
“I think what we're doing is different [than last year] because before, we were really slow from play to play and the coaches had a lot of control," Priore said. “What we've done [this offseason] is we've put a lot more in the quarterback's hands to make decisions about pass protection and receiver routes and so on, and there are a lot of pieces to it that both quarterbacks have done a really good job picking up."
As the season approached, Robinson separated himself from the pack: The coaching staff felt that Robinson had the best grasp of the offense.
“We really feel that Nick Robinson is running the offense very efficiently, and he's gonna get the starting nod," Priore said. “He's improved his game a lot from last season and really has a firm grasp of Morris's offense."
“I think we just got to a point where we thought he had the best knowledge of the offense, and we're trying to put a lot in the quarterback's hands so they can do the right thing at the right time," Morris said. “We're looking for a smart quarterback who can make plays physically, and I think Nick is a great fit."
Priore noted that he had consulted with both Glover and Robinson before making his decision, and he is confident in both of his quarterbacks should anything unexpected happen.
“I spoke to both guys, and they both understand being No. 1 and being No. 2," Priore said. “Both quarterbacks have done a great job of stepping up and running the offense well, and as we all know, it takes one bad play for things to change. But I'm fully confident that both guys understand what it takes and will work really hard for us during the season."
Priore also maintained that the team would be sticking with Robinson — a sharp change in last year's coaching philosophy that emphasized both quarterbacks getting playing time.
“Nick is in control and we're going with him as our guy," Priore said. “As games dictate things, we'll see the roles of players, but there is just one quarterback for us going into the season. With that being said, this is a growing process and things could change."
For Penn football, this marks the first time in the three years following Torgersen's graduation that Priore has committed to one quarterback. Priore emphasized that the team was comfortable knowing who the starter is every week.
“The players were really receptive to going with one guy and they are confident in both Nick and Ryan. But they're all supporting each other," Priore said. “They're not selfish; they're rooting for Penn."
Stepping into the starting role for the first time can be daunting for players. Robinson, though, claims that there is no change in his mentality as the starter for this season.
"I don't think that my mentality going into each game really changes," Robinson said. "I go into each game ready to play and give my best effort whether I'm the starter or the backup."
Priore had different things to say. The two-time Ivy League champion coach admitted that it does affect your mentality in a certain way.
“Both [Glover and Robinson] know what it's like to be number two on the depth chart," Priore said. "And as a starter, I do think that you have more confidence and job security."
Robinson will see his second start for the Quakers on Saturday when the Red and Blue travel to take on Delaware in their season opener. Penn is 3-2 all-time against Delaware, but the two teams haven't met since 1983.
For the first time in his Penn career, though, Robinson won't be overlooked; rather, all eyes will be on him this Saturday as Penn looks to return to the top of the Ivy League.
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