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Column: Chicago Bears may have gem in DE Dominique Robinson (chicagotribune.com)
Dominique Robinson was bummed after the 2019 MAC championship game.
The Miami (Ohio) RedHawks won the game, upsetting Central Michigan, but playing time was becoming increasingly inconsistent for the junior wide receiver. He figured it was time to ask about switching positions. After all, pretty much every position coach in the program had asked him multiple times to come join their room.
Robinson was going to wait until after the season, but the RedHawks landed in the LendingTree Bowl on Jan. 6, a full month later, so he texted coach Chuck Martin and wide receivers coach Israel Woolfork and asked for a meeting.
I really want to try playing defensive end.
Robinson sensed instant relief on the face of Martin when he made the request. He hadn’t told the coaches what he wanted to talk about and figured they might wonder if he was fixing to transfer.
“I said, ‘I was thinking H-back but I love the idea of defensive end,’ ” Martin recalled. “We had told him all along, you can basically go wherever you want.”
The group decided Robinson would remain a wide receiver for the game against Louisiana — Robinson had only 14 receptions for 296 yards on the season — but they would let him get a feel for defensive end in one bowl practice.
“First snap, he beat the tackle and I was like, ‘Wow! That was pretty good,’ ” Martin said. “Just natural, stacked him, put his hands on him. We knew that first day.”
“Any time you move an offensive guy, especially a skill guy to defense, the No. 1 thing is their willingness to hit people, be physical,” said defensive line coach E.J. Whitlow, who moved to Air Force this season. “Especially when you are talking wide receiver to D-line. When Dom got out there, the speed and bend, turn the corner and cause a problem, that was natural for him. But his willingness to put his face in there in the run game and be physical on contact, it was like, ‘Hey, we might have something.’ ”
Robinson might have surprised even himself in that first practice. Miami was the only school to recruit him, and he arrived on campus as a quarterback, a position he stayed at for all of three practices.
“When I moved from quarterback to receiver and I watched myself on tape, you could tell I just didn’t look like a receiver,” Robinson said. “It took a little while for me to get that look of being a receiver. When I moved over to D-end, it looked good. When I got done with practice and I went upstairs and watched the tape of it, I looked like I was supposed to be there.”
COVID-19 threw all college football players for a loop the next year, especially Robinson. But he committed to putting on weight, lifting, working on a blocking sled and learning the nuances of his get-off from the edge. Results came immediately. He had two sacks and a pass breakup against Ball State in the first of only three games for the RedHawks in 2020. Robinson took to his new position quickly with Martin calling the improvement something they noted “daily.”
Bears defensive end Dominique Robinson plays in the rain against the 49ers in the fourth quarter Sunday at Soldier Field. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
“When they come with the decision, ‘Hey, coach, I really want to try this,’ you’re going to get the investment to see it through,” Whitlow said. “Sometimes as a coach if you make a suggestion, if the guy isn’t bought in, he’s not going to give it his all.”
Miami used Robinson as a situational pass rusher in 2021, and while he wasn’t wildly productive — he had 4 ½ sacks and 8 ½ tackles for a loss — the tools made him an easy selection for the Senior Bowl. Robinson measured 6-foot-4, 254 pounds in Mobile, Ala., with a wingspan of 82 ? inches. Bears coach Matt Eberflus covets that kind of length for his defense, and Robinson flashed enough that it didn’t take a great leap of faith to believe he could improve and do so rapidly with more time on task.
When the Bears selected Robinson in the fifth round (No. 174 overall), it was with the idea he would be a project but could contribute right away. The trade of Khalil Mack to the Los Angeles Chargers created a need, too, especially with Eberflus preferring to play linemen in waves.
Robert Quinn is a reserved veteran in his 12th season, not the kind who has a lot to say, but Robinson has been able to glean tips from watching him and the few words he shares.
“On the field, he makes sure I am going in with a game plan,” Robinson said. “When I am about to do a one-on-one rep, he always comes up to me and asks, ‘You got a move in mind?’ He’s making sure I have something planned where if I get the set that I need, that’s the move I am going to us. Sometimes I didn’t do that just because I’m a young guy and I’m going to react on whatever I get. Robert said, ‘No, you have to go in with a plan.’ He’s been good with that. I have been watching him, taking keys.”
Robinson’s debut against the San Francisco 49ers was a hit. He had 1 ½ sacks, the first rookie in Bears history to have more than one sack in a season opener. He beat 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey with a hard move inside and flung Trey Lance to the turf with one arm. He later shared a sack with Roquan Smithon. Robinson finished with seven tackles — five solos — on only 28 snaps.
According to the NFL, Robinson had three “hustle stops,” defined as tackles made after running 20 yards or more, the most by a rookie defensive linemen since Next Gen Stats debuted in 2016.
“That’s a big deal,” defensive line coach Travis Smith said. “You talk about HITS principle, he is showing it there. Every day when you tell him something, it’s the first time he’s heard it. The great thing about him when he hears it, then he takes it out to the field.”
As Robinson left the field in the northwest tunnel at Soldier Field after the game, general manager Ryan Poles was standing there in a sharp, dark gray suit. Poles came up and embraced the soaking wet Robinson with a giant hug.
“That meant something to me, honestly,” Robinson said. “I respect a man that comes over to do that. Come on, man.”
The 49ers game was Robinson’s 16th as a defensive end counting 15 games in college. Some have compared him to Mark Anderson, who burst onto the scene in 2006 as a fifth-round pick with 12 sacks, a Bears rookie record.
Robinson is just scratching the surface.
“I am glad he suggested D-end and I am glad we listened to him,” Martin said. “Between God-given ability and probably the best human being you have ever met, there’s probably nothing that kid can’t do. You can play him anywhere.”