Photo Credit: John Peterson

Padding the Stats: What’s It Mean When Wan’Dale Leaves?

January 13, 2021

I’m not breaking any news here, but Scott Frost lost his best receiver to the transfer portal this week. It’s the second straight year that has happened, which is certainly not ideal.

Wan’Dale Robinson’s 701 yards from scrimmage and two total touchdowns this season by themselves clearly weren’t the difference between a winning and losing record, and his return likely wouldn’t have meant Nebraska’s offense would have suddenly pumped out 40 points per game next season.

Nebraska is definitely better with Robinson, but in the grand scheme of things he probably isn’t too big of a loss considering all the other issues Nebraska’s offense continues to face. In my mind, the symbolic nature of this departure and what it could mean going forward is far more worrisome.

Robinson is as highly-rated and as high-profile a recruit as Frost has landed in Lincoln. His staff put a ton of work into selling their vision to him, choosing to keep pursuing him even after he committed to Kentucky. The persistence paid off as he flipped to Nebraska and set freshman receiving records in 2019.

Robinson seemed to be as bought into Nebraska football as anyone, and the staff essentially made him one of the faces of the program despite his youth. When Nebraska announced its plans to build a new practice facility September of 2019, Robinson was the player chosen to represent the program.

“This facility is going to attract even more recruits like myself and make people want to come here,” Robinson said during the announcement. “I know that it’s probably like three years away from now, but hopefully I’ll still be here. It will come fast, so I’m just excited for the future and everything that this program has in store.”

Fifteen months later, he’s gone. What happened to change things so dramatically for Robinson?

JD Spielman left after the 2019 season, leaving Robinson as Nebraska’s most experienced weapon on offense. That didn’t lead to the breakout year many of us expected, however. His receptions-per-game average went up from 4.0 to 6.4, but his yards-per-catch average dropped from 11.3 to 9.0, leading to just 8 more receiving yards in the abbreviated season.

Nebraska still used Robinson in the backfield plenty as a sophomore, but he logged three fewer caries per game and was much more efficient with those carries, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Still, at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, I doubt Robinson saw his Duck-R role leading to quite so much handoff run game usage.

When Robinson announced he intended to enter the portal, he referenced his mother’s health situation as being a big part of his decision and his desire to find another program closer to home. The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges that no football coach is truly equipped to deal with (just like the rest of us). Players having relatives dealing with health issues is entirely out of the coach’s control.

However, when Robinson spoke with ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg after announcing his decision, he went into more detail than he did in his farewell message on Twitter.

“It was about 50-50 with my mom and how I was used at Nebraska,” Robinson said. “I loved the touches and the way I got the touches. Sometimes they don’t translate to the way I want them to for the NFL.”

Robinson said his ideal offense would use “option routes, choice routes, over routes. Things to really see exactly what I can do with the ball in my hands.” He twice has been a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation’s most versatile player.

Frost and his staff identified Robinson as a perfect fit for their offense with his ability to be dynamic in space and make defenders miss. Plenty made the comparison to Purdue’s Rondale Moore, and it seems like that was the vision sold to him.

However, Moore’s freshman stats blew Robinson’s numbers from both of his seasons out of the water. In addition to handing him the ball 134 times in 18 games, Nebraska also ran a ton of screen plays for him, many of which went nowhere. Downfield targets seemed few and far between. Heck, I remember thinking ‘why can’t they do that more often?’ every time a quarterback did manage to get the ball to him more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.

Though their names were similar, Moore certainly was more of a ready-made product than Robinson as far as polish as a route-runner and overall wide receiver. Still, I believe Robinson had more to offer as a true receiver than he was given a chance to show the last two years, and he evidently feels the same.

Whether it has more to do with Nebraska’s quarterback situation or the offensive scheme and play-calling, Robinson appears to have lost faith that Frost can put him in the best situation to showcase his talents to NFL evaluators. That’s a problem.

Adrian Martinez was Frost’s hand-picked quarterback, but based on his lack of development that position has as much to do with Nebraska’s offensive struggles as any other. Robinson was supposed to be Frost’s next dynamic multi-threat playmaker, but that didn’t play out as expected either.

If he couldn’t make it work with Robinson, a guy they wanted so bad and who appeared to be as invested in Nebraska football as anyone, why should we have hope that he’ll be able to recruit, develop and retain other players of Robinson’s talent level or greater?

None of this even speaks to the relationship between player and coach behind the scenes, because that’s something those of us on the outside simply can’t know about. But it certainly seems Robinson doesn’t have the same trust in Frost that he had when he signed his letter of intent.

This obviously isn’t all on Frost specifically, but it is a culmination of all the program’s struggles the last couple of years and he’s ultimately the man responsible for all of that. If things were better within the program (better quarterback play, a more reliable halfback running game, a more versatile offense, more wins in general) I’d have to believe the tug of home wouldn’t have been quite so strong and Robinson very well might be preparing to report for winter conditioning.

But that’s not the case, and now Nebraska will have to move forward without him.

Nebraska can’t afford to keep losing talent like this. As someone who enjoys watching good football, I really hope this departure leads to some serious introspection by Frost about what he needs to change to prevent situations like this from continuing to happen.

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