TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Remember Teddy Lehman, the All-American linebacker at Oklahoma from a decade ago?
Upon being drafted by the Detroit Lions (my old workplace), circa 2004, the rookie Lehman — who, as legend has it, once ran a blistering sub-4.3 40 in college — was astonished to learn how much free time NFL players had during the regular season … after practicing, working out, sitting through positional meetings, watching film, talking to the media and removing mounds of protective tape from their ankles and wrists.
In other words, more time for online blackjack (or something like that).
Lehman’s response to everyday life in the NFL, albeit playful in tone, might have been a representative answer for the majority of Division I football players.
From sunup to sundown, their college workdays are meticulously planned by coaches, trainers, professors and tutors — creating the perception that athletes can never relax or express themselves too much at the college level.
Consequently, they can only let their proverbial hair “down” upon reaching the pros.
Alabama defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson doesn’t have similar laments about his own college experience. He came to Tuscaloosa hoping his days would be planned to the second; and he joined the Crimson Tide program wanting to fall in love with two words that have become synonymous with coach Nick Saban:
“When you come to Alabama, coming here, it’s the process, Coach Saban’s process,” says Robinson, an All-American talent who’s vying to become the first defensive tackle taken in the upcoming NFL draft. “You know you’ve got to work day-in and day-out, there’s nothing given to you. It’s a grind, like night and day … so, there’s no opportunity to stop grinding, doing things, like going to the beach. You’ve just got to work out.
“(And) until the day I stop playing football, it’s a grind.”
The above quote would have served as catnip to the legion of scouts, coaches and NFL personnel attending Alabama’s Pro Day earlier in the week.
At 6-foot-4, 307 pounds, Robinson has the requisite size, physical tools (arm length: 34 1/2 inches) and on-field production (nine career sacks, 22 tackles for loss, 133 tackles) to be an easy first-round pick.
He also has the polished talent of a burgeoning All-Pro at the next level.
“We’re not just gap-fillers (at Alabama), we can actually move,” says Robinson, who likely has a Round 1 range of 12th (New Orleans Saints) to 26th (Seattle Seahawks) overall.
Just like in real life, however, there are no guarantees with the NFL draft.
“This is the best interior defensive linemen class I’ve ever seen,” said NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock, who currently has Robinson and Alabama teammate Jarran Reed in his top-five listing of D-tackles. “And these kids (Robinson, Reed) are going to play early and often (over) 10 years.”
A moment later, Mayock then offered his interpretation of The Process, which demands a high level of consistency among Alabama prospects.
“(Robinson and Reed) just have to keep doing what they’re doing. That’s the credo here at Alabama, you know. It’s The Process, taking it one day at a time, that’s what they’re doing,” Mayock said. “They keep checking boxes.”
For three seasons, including two SEC crowns and one national title, Robinson was a certifiable defensive force in the trenches.
For 2015, Robinson helped Alabama notch elite-level national rankings with rushing defense (first overall), total defense (third) and scoring defense (third).
Robinson (NFL combine tallies: 5.2 in the 40, 106-inch broad jump) was particularly dynamic in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Michigan State. He didn’t record one sack or tackle for loss; but the Spartans offense (zero points) had no success in the running game (26 carries, 29 yards) — a byproduct of Robinson nimbly and forcefully closing off rushing lanes near the line of scrimmage … essentially devouring the Spartans’ overmatched cadre of interior blockers.
“(Reed and I) have been pushing each other to be the best in the country,” says Robinson, who has improved his explosiveness and quickness off the ball in the last few months.
Within that rationale, Robinson would trend closer to the above mock-draft range of No. 12 overall … instead of teetering in the mid-20s.
“Mock drafts don’t really mean anything to teams that needs players (at certain positions),” Robinson said.
Thankfully for Robinson, the NFL will always need athletic, graceful mountain men who simply can’t be moved from one spot to another — without the help a forklift machine.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.