In Spring 2013, Wilbur Cross High School coach John Acquavita told Mike Siravo to come to New Haven, Connecticut as soon as he could.
“I have a Christmas present for you in June,” Acquavita told Siravo, then the Owls’ linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator.
When Siravo arrived, he saw who Acquavita was talking about: Jaelin Robinson, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound high school junior playing football for the first time. Siravo told Acquavita he’d try to get former Temple offensive line coach Allen Mogridge to Wilbur Cross the next day.
Robinson became a “dominant player” around week four or five of his senior high school season, Acquavita said. Toward the end of the fall, he garnered interest from Syracuse University, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin. But when it came time to choose a school, Robinson chose the only school Acquavita called: Temple.
Four years later, Robinson — a redshirt-junior offensive lineman — is competing for a starting spot. Last season’s starting center Brendan McGowan and starting left tackle Dion Dawkins, who CBS Sports projects as a second-round NFL draft pick, are graduating.
“We kept it real simple with people that we knew would let him take his time,” Acquavita said. “We thought this would be the time, like this spring into next season, where he would take that next step into being maybe an elite player.”
Robinson redshirted in 2014 and played three games in 2015. He said the first two years of his career were “rough,” but he worked with former offensive line coach George DeLeone to get more comfortable last season.
Robinson played 12 games in 2016. He rotated with redshirt-senior offensive lineman Leon Johnson at right tackle during the Owls’ win against the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on Sept. 24.
Coach Geoff Collins said he was one of the most impressive players in the Owls’ offseason conditioning program. Robinson said he had the mentality of needing to be the first player to finish a drill, the fastest player and the strongest player.
“I think he’s one of the most athletic linemen we’ve got, so he’s moving pretty good,” junior running back Jager Gardner said.
After practice on April 1, former Owls’ offensive lineman Eric Lofton — who earned first-team all-American Athletic Conference honors in 2015 and signed with the Canadian Football League’s Ottawa Redblacks in February — joined the reporters asking Robinson questions. Before he left, Lofton thumped the front of Robinson’s shoulder pads and said “This guy is going to be a f—ing star.”
“The best five guys from the coaches’ standpoint are going to be the ones who play,” Robinson said. “So that means you could have me, who has been a right tackle for the majority of my career, if I’m one of the best five, I’ll be playing left [tackle], or I can be playing right guard or left guard. It doesn’t matter. It’s not about position. It’s about getting the best O-linemen on the field.”
Acquavita first saw Robinson early in his junior year. He had just transferred from Notre Dame High School in West Haven, Connecticut and was in the auditorium for orientation.
“No way is this a kid,” Acquavita said.
But despite his size, Robinson never played football before. He played basketball instead, helping Wilbur Cross advance to the state semifinals as a junior. Acquavita helped Robinson with his courses and the two became close. He asked Robinson to try football for 10 days of spring practice. If he didn’t like it, he could quit at least knowing he’d tried.
Robinson primarily played left tackle in high school because Acquavita thought he’d learn the position quicker than defensive line or tight end. He lined up at defensive end for Wilbur Cross’ first defensive play against Amity Regional High School on Oct. 25, 2013. Acquavita said Robinson took a full second to move once the center snapped the ball but still managed to toss the left tackle aside and get a sack.
“I gave it a go, and when I first went out for spring ball my senior year, I absolutely hated football,” Robinson said. “But I stuck with it, and about midway through the season, I kind of developed a love for it that hasn’t really faded.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.