Will USC's Nickell Robey Make it in the NFL?

By Justine Hendricks
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports


Nickell Robey‘s NFL draft evaluation doesn’t project that he’ll go before the fourth round, but that’s not going to stop USCs junior cornerback him from giving it his best shot.

“This is an opportunity,” he told The L.A. Times’ Gary Klein, confirming his decision to leave the Trojans for the NFL a year early. “Nothing is guaranteed to anybody. They can make a lot of predictions,  but nothing is guaranteed,” he said.

And after all, Robey has overcome much tougher odds before.

His mother, Maxine, died of heart failure soon after Robey signed his letter of intent to USC. He honored her memory, and her wishes, by sticking with their plan, moving from his hometown of Frostproof, Fl. to Los Angeles to play college football.

As a freshman at USC, he competed for a starting role and won, becoming the first true freshman to start a season opener at cornerback for the Trojans since World War II. (Another standout true freshman from that class, receiver Robert Woods, has also declared for the draft.)

Like Woods, Robey quickly became entrenched in the starting lineup; he never missed a start in his three-year career and leaves school with a string of 37 straight.

The junior had 163 tackles and seven interceptions in his career as a Trojan. He was a second-team All Pac-12 selection following the 2012 season, even though he wasn’t as big of a factor because opponents avoided throwing in his direction (particularly because USC struggled to find someone to stick on the opposite side of the field).

Robey’s small stature is a big factor in his low draft stock. He stands just 5’8″ but the unfavorable height matchup against many top receivers hasn’t had as much of an impact on his performance to this point as one might think. He’s held his own against former Washington Husky and current Seattle Seahawks WR Jermaine Kearse and Colorado‘s Paul Richardson (both 6’1″) and in 2011, he shut down Notre Dame‘s Michael Floyd (6’3″) who was a first round draft pick for the Arizona Cardinals last season.

Robey’s speed should also work in his favor. He was one of three USC football players to join the Trojans’ track team in the offseason, competing as a long jumper and sprinter, which many feel will help Robey stand out at the NFL Combine and improve his draft position.

Still, it’s a big risk to try to jump to the NFL early if you’re not expected to be taken in one of the first few rounds, but in his interview with Klein, Robey characterized his choice as “a business decision, just like any other important decision I’ve made my whole life.”

With USC still searching for a new defensive coordinator, the cornerback might’ve figured he’d take his chances on a career and a paycheck, rather than working through potentially (or hopefully, if you’re a USC fan) significant changes on defense next season that could further affect his draft stock.

Historically, Robey’s “business decisions” have been influenced by the coaching personnel involved. Initially a Georgia commit, he reopened his recruitment following turnover on the Bulldogs’ defensive staff. He was offered a scholarship to Tennessee when Lane and Monte Kiffin were there, and when the father-son pair defected to USC, they again courted the undersized defensive back.

The elder Kiffin played a key role in Robey’s decision to go so far from home to play for the Trojans.

In an LA Times piece from Nov. 2011, Robey told Klein: “My mom loved Monte Kiffin. She was like, ‘He’s more than a coach. He’s bigger than a coach. He stands for something.’ ”

Monte Kiffin retired from his post at USC to return to the NFL, raising questions about his ability to coach defenses in the league, with its increasingly mobile quarterbacks and uptempo offenses, when he couldn’t cut it in the Pac-12.

Robey faces similar concerns about his ability to make it at the next level, but USC fans who’ve watched the corner develop know that he’s never been one to back down from a challenge.

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