|T.J. Josey shifted back to wide receiver after starting three games at quarterback, but has remained a mentor to Robinson.
Photo by Andrew Zavoina, d3photography.com
By Brian Lester
A starting receiver a year ago, T.J. Josey was poised to be the starting quarterback for Mary Hardin-Baylor this season. The senior had experience, great athleticism and the confidence to lead the Cru on a quest to repeat as national champions.
Then he saw freshman Carl Robinson III in practice and he saw something in the rookie that made him realize the young signal caller was going to be special.
“I told him to just relax and learn and this will be your spot one day,” Josey said. “He’s a very talented guy and smart. There isn’t much I have to tell him. He knows what to do.”
The day for Robinson to be the starter came much sooner than maybe some expected in a year where personnel changes have been common.
Josey played in the first three games at quarterback before switching back to wide receiver, a position he certainly thrives at as he set a school record with 1,063 receiving yards in 2016.
But it wasn’t Robinson’s job yet. Kyle Jones started in Weeks 4 and 5. Robinson saw his first action under center in Week 6 against Howard Payne. He’s earned five starts this season, helping the Cru reach the doorstep of the national championship game.
Leading receiver Bryce Wilkerson is a senior and, like Josey, he does what he can to help Robinson thrive in his rookie season.
“I let him know what he did right and what he did wrong and have done what I can to help him make progress,” Wilkerson said. “I’m always there to offer advice.”
With Wilkerson and Josey being veteran players, the value of their presence and the impact they’ve had on Robinson’s growth as a quarterback can’t be underestimated.
“Those two have made a lot of plays the last two years and are both mature guys who have really taken our freshman quarterback and have helped him understand the expectations of our program,” Cru offensive coordinator Stephen Lee said. “They’ve helped bring him along and have helped him establish confidence.”
Robinson completed 17 of his 25 passes for 159 yards in a 24-10 win over St. Thomas in the national quarterfinal round on Saturday. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass and was picked off twice.
Those are the kind of days that can be tough on a young player. Wilkerson understands that.
“I always tell him to keep his head up,” Wilkerson said. “I don’t let him get down on himself.”
Robinson has completed 70 percent of his passes and has thrown for more than 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns.
“He knows how to extend plays when he feels the rush,” Josey said. “He rolls out but he isn’t looking to run instantly. He’s still looking down the field to make a throw.”
Robinson’s ability to make plays is aided by the fact that he has talented targets to throw to. Wilkerson and Josey rank first and second on the team in receiving, combining for more than 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Josey’s experience at quarterback brings an added dimension to his knack for making plays as a receiver.
“I know what defenses want to do and I’ll let Carl know where he needs to put the ball depending on what coverage a team is in and based on what the down and distance is,” Josey said. “I use my experience of having played quarterback to help him be in a position to make plays.”
|Wilkerson has helped Robinson as his leading receiver and by setting up short fields with his return skills.
Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com
Wilkerson said timing is important as well, and he works a lot with Robinson on that in practice. He also takes pressure off Robinson by rising to the occasion on special teams to give the Cru great field position. Wilkerson averages 43.5 yards per return and has scored twice.
“Special teams are big for us, and I try to do the best job that I can. I want to be the best return man in the nation,” Wilkerson said.
Josey could have been bitter about losing the starting job, but his focus is on doing what is best for the team. It speaks volumes about his character.
“We’ve made a lot of changes at a lot of positions, but you just have to trust that they are there for a reason,” Josey said. “We know what they can do and we trust that they can do it.”
Lee said wide receiver is a natural fit for Josey and believes Robinson has matured a great deal since arriving on campus, noting it just took him time to get his feet on the ground and get going.
Compared to a year ago when Lee was in his first season as offensive coordinator, not too much has changed as far as planning goes week to week despite the personnel changes.
“The speed of the game is different for a younger player, but we are to the point now where we have a quarterback with snaps under his belt and we don’t too much different than what we were doing last year," said Lee. "The only thing we really had to change with Carl was scaling things back a bit in his first couple of starts to make sure we didn’t put him in bad positions.”
It appears to be working. Having Josey still show up to the quarterback meetings doesn’t hurt either.
“T.J. understands the expectations and pressures that come with playing the position, and he has the intangibles you need to be successful at it," said Lee. "He’s used that experience to help Carl and still meets with us in the quarterback room. He’s a good sounding board for Carl.”
Lee said he always reminds Robinson that with a great supporting cast around him, he has no reason to put a ton of pressure on himself.
“I tell him he just has to be a dealer and doesn’t have to do everything himself,” Lee said. “We just come up with ways to get our guys opportunities to touch the football.”
Through all of the changes that have taken place over the course of the season, the Crusaders have responded well and will look to clear the next hurdle on the road to a title Saturday when they take on Brockport. A spot in the title game will be on the line.
“We’ve done a great job of dealing with change this year and are just taking it one step at a time in the playoffs,” Wilkerson said. “We aren’t looking ahead. We know where we want to be and how we are going to get there.”