MANKATO, Minn. – Josh Robinson lined up against Jarius Wright in a simple receiver-cornerback drill in Minnesota Vikings’ practice when Robinson cut in front of Wright to make a play on an outside route to intercept a pass.
The operative word for Robinson is outside.
Robinson, the embattled third-year cornerback, is back on the outside of Minnesota’s defense this year and staying there. The experiment to try Robinson in the slot in the nickel defense last year went horribly awry. His confidence was shot as he struggled with the move and he couldn’t hold his own on the outside when given the chance.
Now, back where he prefers on the outside, his confidence is coming back.
"It’s climbing," Robinson said. "It’s going to continue to climb, lord willing, as I continue to work and get more comfortable outside and things like that."
Intercepting one pass in a 1-on-1 practice drill doesn’t mean Robinson is ready to have a breakthrough season. Yet, the play helped signify the change in Robinson’s demeanor and his comfort level being on the outside.
A third-round draft pick in 2012 out of Central Florida, Robinson had never played inside as a nickel cornerback before the Vikings’ previous coaching staff decided to try him at the important spot last season.
Robinson’s new position coach, former Pro Bowl cornerback Jerry Gray, understands the struggles Robinson went through.
"To me that’s the hardest thing to do in football, is for you to take a corner who’s never played nickel and play nickel," Gray said. "If he don’t have the savvy, if he doesn’t understand what he’s doing, if he doesn’t have the whole idea of the defense, he’s in for failure. So what you do with young guys, what I try to do, is give them one position and master that first. And then I’ll give you another one.
"But if you never master that one position, I can’t give you two because you’re going to fail at one of them and then I’m going to be disappointed in you in the other."
The experiment last year failed horribly. Minnesota tried to get Robinson to take on the same role Antoine Winfield perfected as a smaller cornerback. The size similarities were there. The play and understanding wasn’t.
Robinson played in 10 games last year and had 58 tackles. But he didn’t have an interception, had just four pass deflections and allowed 84.8 percent of the passes in his direction to be completed, according to the website ProFootballFocus.com. The completion percentage was the highest among regular cornerbacks and he allowed a 127.0 quarterback rating on throws to his receiver, according to Pro Football Focus. The site ranked Robinson 99th among 110 cornerbacks.
Robinson said trying to learn the slot position made him play slow.
"Really in the nickel, it’s something you’ve got to feel," Robinson said at the end of minicamp in June. "That’s something I remember coach Joe Woods from last year, he always telling me, ‘You’ll start feeling things.’ I never felt nothing but when people in the end zone and I’m like, ‘Man, this is stupid.’ So, it’s a thing that you really have to feel and then you get a feel for it and you can really do it and excel in it, and Captain (Munnerlyn) has proven it."
Minnesota signed the veteran Munnerlyn, known for his play in the slot, in the offseason. Robinson, instead of worrying about the competition for a spot in the base defense, applauded the move and said he was ecstatic. Adding Munnerlyn was a sign Robinson wasn’t going to have to worry about the inside again.
"No, not even a little bit," Robinson said in June of his desire to play inside.
But Gray and the Vikings didn’t want Robinson moving around again. The new coaching staff wanted Robinson to stay in one spot and regain confidence before any thought of moving around.
"It’s tough enough, No. 1, to play corner and to have confidence that you can stop the receivers and stuff like that," Gray said. "You’re not comfortable, so all of a sudden you start going downhill and you’re on a downhill spiral. From there, but my job is to build your confidence up out there. You’ve got have confidence that you can go cover everybody and do your job. Now, you’ll probably lose some battles but you know what, don’t lose confidence in your battle."
Robinson was perhaps a surprise pick when Minnesota nabbed him in the third round of the 2012 draft. He was a star at the Scouting Combine and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds and also posted the best scores among his position in the vertical jump and broad jump.
His rookie season wasn’t an immediate success, but he did have two interceptions. Of course, he was on the outside in his first season, with Winfield taking the nickel spot.
"I think it’s more of an island," Robinson said of playing outside. "You’re not really dealing with the linebacker responsibilities and things like that. I have that opportunity to be on an island and really just do my job, which would be one job of guarding that receiver."
Robinson has his position set. Gray and the coaches are trying to get his confidence set, as well. With Munnerlyn on the physically unable to perform list at the start of training camp, Robinson has been on the outside as part of the first-team defense.
"What I tell him is you’ve got to compete against the best," Gray said. "You should want to go against (Cordarrelle Patterson). You should want to go against (Greg Jennings), you should want to go against (Wright), (Jerome Simpson). ‘Every down, I want this guy because if he gets better, I’m better.’ I can put you against anybody and you win, that doesn’t mean you ‘re going to play against this guy on Sunday. That’s how you get your confidence back. You get your confidence back against good players, not just guys that won’t be out there."
Plays like he made against Wright are just what the Vikings are hoping they can draw out of Robinson in Year 3. At least early on, Robinson feels the difference.
"I’m not having to think so much of what I’ve got to do, what’s my responsibility," he said. "I can react more out there. That’s all I’m trying to do. Play fast and physical, and all those good things."