Ah, it’s that time of the year again. It’s POSITION CHANGE SEASON, BABY! This is the time in the football calendar when football teams talk about changes that might or might not matter by the start of the regular season.
We’re all too familiar with these storylines by now. A safety cross-training at cornerback. An offensive lineman taking reps at both guard and tackle. A wide receiver working inside and out. Sometimes it matters. A lot of the time, frankly, it doesn’t stick.
That’s the backdrop to the bit of news we received during the first week of Missouri’s spring football practices as Darius Robinson announced he would be spending a decent amount of his time this spring at defensive end. Defensive coordinator Blake Baker and defensive tackles coach Al Davis also confirmed as much in their conversations with the media.
With so many returning D-tackles, Darius Robinson will get playing time at D-end this spring, like he did in the bowl game.— Dave Matter (@Dave_Matter) February 27, 2023
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Robinson is athletic enough to make the move worthy of discussion, but it would be quite a turn of events from the way he was utilized last year in Baker’s defense.
Pro Football Focus breaks down how every player is utilized on every snap. Robinson took 323 snaps last season at defensive tackle, 76 snaps at nose tackle and just 59 snaps at defensive end, according to PFF. Our friends at PFF break snaps down even further, though. According to their numbers, Robinson lined up in the A-Gap (between center and guard) 17 percent of the time and the B-Gap (between guard and tackle) 70 percent of the time. That means he spent roughly 87 percent of his time lined up at some version of what we would typically call a “defensive tackle.” He was lined up over the tackle on just 12 percent of his snaps, and he was outside the tackle just 1 percent of the time last season.
Long story short, Robinson was lined up at nose tackle last season more often than he was coming off the edge. That checks out, considering Robinson is listed at 6-foot-5 and 296 pounds. The only defensive ends drafted in the top 100 of the NFL Draft in the past 15 years to go through the NFL Combine at a similar size to Robinson’s listed height and weight of 6-foot-5 and 296 pounds are former LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson (2009), former Cal defensive end Tyson Alualu (2010), former Nebraska defensive end Adam Carriker (2007) and former Charlotte defensive end Larry Ogunjobi (2017).
Moral of the story: Players at Robinson’s height and weight simply don’t play the edge very often. Teams are getting rid of the ball faster than ever, which means it’s more important than ever before to have an edge rusher with a blistering first step and the ability to bend the edge. It’s incredibly difficult to have those qualities at 295 pounds.
That doesn’t mean Robinson’s transition is over before it ever began, though. I do believe there’s a way to make this work. In fact, it could be a way for the Tigers to get the most snaps possible from their best defensive linemen.
All it takes is one quick glance at Missouri’s depth chart to serve as a reminder of the proven depth the Tigers currently have along the interior of the defensive line. That does not currently exist at defensive end.
For context, here’s a list of the proven defensive tackles on Missouri’s roster:
- Darius Robinson, Kristian Williams, Jayden Jernigan, Realus George and Josh Landry
And here’s a list of the proven defensive ends on Missouri’s roster:
- Joe Moore
Which position are you more comfortable with? Pretty easy answer, right? Hence the move for Robinson. He is — without question — the defensive tackle most likely to be able to transition to defensive end on early downs or obvious running downs. He is surprisingly athletic for his size. He has some serious strength. And he was actually a defensive end when he committed to Mizzou out of high school.
Utilizing Robinson at defensive end in the right situations is the key. He should not be lining up on the edge in obvious passing downs. I don’t suspect we’ll see him outside on many third and medium or third and long situations. Instead, he’ll play outside on early downs and then kick back to his natural position along the interior for pass rushing situations.
“For tackles, you’re usually getting combo or double-teamed, so show that individual power and that versatility,” Baker told reporters after spring practice last week. “I’ve talked to him and I’m not saying he’s this guy yet, but from a skill set to me it could be similar to J.J. Watt and move him around and try to put the on mismatches. He combines a great deal of speed and power. I think him being able to show that will show NFL teams 一 eams that run 3-4 look for something different than 4-3 teams, and now he’s really expanding that skill set and putting it on tape for all 32 teams.”
This move could serve two purposes. First of all, it helps Missouri’s coaching staff get the best players on the field more often. Secondarily, though, it could help boost Robinson’s NFL Draft stock even further if there are teams who would like to see him at defensive end in certain situations. A 3-4 defense, for example, could see Robinson as a perfect fit at defensive end due to his rare combination of length and strength.
Spring positional changes are difficult to judge. Many don’t hold beyond the summer. This is the rare one that has the chance to stick due to the motivation from both the team and the player to make it work. Robinson will not be a full-time defensive end, but his ability to play on the edge could be the best thing for the Tigers’ ability to compete in 2023.