Nowadays, Missouri defensive tackle Darius Robinson’s job is to shed blockers. But it was a play he made on the other side of the line of scrimmage that made his high school coach, Andy Lafata, realize that Robinson had the ability to play high-level college football.
Robinson got a late start to football, playing only basketball for his first two years of high school. At the beginning of his senior season, Lafata, in his first year as the head coach of Canton high school, wanted Robinson to focus on playing defensive line. Like most high school players, Robinson wanted a chance to touch the ball. In the weeks leading up to the season, he begged the coaching staff to put him on the field at tight end.
Lafata said the team already had solid tight end play, and he figured (correctly) that Robinson’s best shot at playing in college would come on the defensive line. But Robinson wore him down, and for one play in the team’s second game of the season, he sent Robinson onto the field with the offense. It was a running play, and Robinson’s assignment was straightforward: Block the player in front of you.
“He took this kid who was lined up in front of him, and he blocked him, I swear, 15 yards out of the back of the end zone,” Lafata said. “It was like something out of The Blind Side. And us coaches looked at each other, and that was just, okay, Darius is playing offense now. Alright. Thank you. That was a big mistake by coach.”
The play not only earned Robinson playing time on both sides of the ball, it set the tone for a breakout season. In 13 years of coaching high-schoolers, Lafata said he’s never seen a player improve more from one season to the next.
Robinson’s trajectory hasn’t slowed down, either. In just his second year on a college campus and fourth year playing football, he has emerged as a likely contributor on a senior-studded Missouri defensive line.
“I think Darius has had great improvement,” defensive line coach Brick Haley said. “Really, really been pleased with his progress up until now. I think he will only continue to get better. Really excited about him for this season.”
Robinson entered high school thinking basketball would be his best shot at earning a college scholarship, so he initially attended Canton Prep, which didn’t field a football team. When he got to be about 250 pounds, one of his coaches suggested he should give football a shot. Lafata remembers being excited when he saw Robinson, about 6-foot-3 at the time, show up for his first practice, but it soon became apparent that “he really didn’t know a thing about football yet.” Plus, at the same time he was trying to learn the game, Lafata said Robinson was still developing physically, gaining strength and coordination as he grew into his body.
Robinson still managed to get on the field as a junior, and his sheer size and athleticism were enough to attract the attention of college coaches. He continued to play basketball, as well, but when his first high-major offers arrived from Purdue and Iowa State in January of 2018, he knew that football would be his sport in college. After he attended several offseason camps, the offers began to pour in. Robinson said he didn’t expect to generate so much interest so quickly.
“In high school, you think you gotta play your freshman year, your sophomore year, your junior year and your senior year to get offers, and I just got most of my offers right after just one year,” he said. “So it was honestly shocking for me and my family.”
When Canton began practices the summer prior to Robinson’s senior year, he looked like a completely different player. For one, he had grown to about 6-foot-5 while adding strength and speed. And instead of sitting back and watching other players go through drills first, he emerged as a leader. His teammates even voted him a team captain.
“Darius was a player his junior year, but he wasn’t by any means a dominant player or a big leader on the team,” Lafata explained. “He was just one of the guys, learning along like a normal junior does. And (his senior year), you could tell he told everyone, get on the line during workouts. He broke everything down. If people weren’t working, he was on them, and you could see his leadership.”
The offseason of hard work off the field led to a dominant season on it. Robinson’s individual stats aren’t available, but the further expansion of his offer list illustrated his improvement. Missouri extended an offer in October of 2018, followed shortly thereafter by Minnesota and Michigan. His recruitment came down to the Tigers and Wolverines, with Robinson waiting until the first day of the early signing period in December 2018 to announce that he would sign with Missouri.
Less than a month later, Robinson enrolled early, joining a defensive line loaded with experience. Headlined by current Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Jordan Elliott, the group featured 11 scholarship upperclassmen. Yet Robinson scratched out a bit of playing time, appearing in five games, enough to use a first season of eligibility.
Lafata looks at Robinson’s freshman season at Missouri like his junior year of high school, his first playing football. Adjusting from high school to college posed a steep learning curve, but Robinson grew from the experience and showed glimpses of his ability. Now, Lafata is seeing signs of another breakout season.
“He actually has come around when (Missouri) has been on breaks and came back and gotten workouts in, and it’s amazing, every time I see him, the guy gets bigger and bigger,” Lafata said. “And he’s really eaten it up. And just the jump, the difference in how high school is like fun, college, this is like a job now. … And you can tell, he’s in. He’s bought in.”
Lafata isn’t the only one who’s been impressed with Robinson this offseason. Head coach Eli Drinkwitz noted that Robinson recorded “multiple sacks” in the team’s closed scrimmage on Saturday. The defensive tackle group is still stocked with seniors, but look for Robinson to be part of the regular rotation. In fact, it wouldn’t come as a shock if he starts opposite all-conference candidate Kobie Whiteside.
“It’s crazy, when I watch film of myself from high school to my freshman year to my sophomore year, I see things that I wasn’t able to do before,” Robinson said, “And now it’s like, my sophomore year, I’m really starting to see it on the practice field.”
Even more exciting than what he could contribute on the field this season might be Robinson’s room for future development. Missouri will have a void to fill after Whiteside and fellow seniors Akial Byers and Markell Utsey graduate, and Robinson could be a candidate to do so. After just three seasons playing football, he doesn’t believe he’s hit his ceiling.
Lafata doesn’t think Robinson has even come close. He compared Robinson to a plant that just keeps growing as long as you water it. Combine that with the increased knowledge of the game he’ll continue to pick up the longer he plays, and Lafata thinks he could be a future star.
“When I’m saying I’ve never seen a kid jump from a junior year to senior year and develop the way that he has, not just physically but mentally, it’s probably still untapped,” Lafata said of Robinson’s potential. “It’s amazing. Every time he comes back, he’s a little bit longer, he’s a little bit bigger, he’s a little bit faster. We had him going in some of our agility drills and our running, and he was running with some of our backs and all that, keeping up with them, and I was like, wow. He could be special.”