The few times when Middlebury had yet to take control of games this season, Austin Robinson was ready to pounce. Take the Division I title game against St. Johnsbury in November as the final and, perhaps, best example of delivering when it mattered.
After intercepting Colton Hudson on the game’s opening possession, Robinson rushed for a touchdown on the ensuing drive.
When backed up at the 8-yard line to start the second half and clinging to a 13-7 lead, Robinson orchestrated a 21-play, seven-plus minute drive capped by his fourth-and-21 touchdown pass to Cullen Hathaway.
The clichéd phrase, long since worn out by football coaches, rings true: Robinson makes plays. Usually the biggest ones.
“He makes big plays when sometimes there doesn’t look like there is much there,” Middlebury coach Dennis Smith said. “He just has this will. He’s got great vision and he sees things better than others do, it’s just a gift.”
And it’s why, after leading Middlebury to its second straight undefeated season with poise in a prolific option offense and astute awareness in the secondary of an opportunistic defense, Robinson earns another distinction this fall: the Free Press’ football player of the year.
“Put him on another team and he’s special on that team. He would be a game-changer for us,” said Colchester coach Tom Perry, whose Lakers couldn’t score in two games against Middlebury, including the semifinals.
“Yes, he’s a product of that system and the right athlete for what they do, but he’s also an electric athlete.”
Rushing for 567 yards and 12 touchdowns, Robinson also saw marked improvement in his completion percentage — it soared to 64 percent — and added 532 through the air with another dozen scores as the focal point and leader of a well-run, explosive Middlebury attack that averaged 41.6 points a game and totaled 4,253 yards of offense.
With Middlebury outscoring teams 293-49 in first halves this season — limiting his minutes — and opposing defenses focused on making others beat them, Robinson’s total production isn’t gaudy. But he did average 6.4 yards a carry and was the master at the controls, making the correct reads, for Middlebury’s option scheme during a 22-0 run the past two seasons.
And 2014 was his best, Smith said.
“This year, he was even better. Last year he was growing into the position,” Smith said. “He had a great year as a junior and with big expectations on him, he didn’t come in with a big head. He came in ready to work and ready to make himself better and I think that showed, especially in his passing numbers.”
More of a student of the game on the defensive side, Robinson said he spent 70 percent of practice during the week working on his secondary skills. When the time came to prep for the title game, Robinson said he noticed a tendency in St. Johnsbury’s offense on passing plays to the tight end. Sure enough, come game time, Robinson was there to snatch the early momentum.
“I knew they liked to throw to the tight end on a seam right in the middle of the field and I saw Hudson’s eyes go to him and I jumped right in front,” Robinson said. “I knew what he was trying to do and go take a shot and it was just instinct. I went with it and I was in the right place at right time.”
On the clock-draining touchdown drive that provided the Tigers enough breathing room to close out their repeat, Robinson never glanced at his first option — a swing pass to Bobby Ritter — after catching Hathaway signaling with his hand.
“When Cullen’s hand goes up, it probably means he’s open,” Smith said. “They made it happen, that’s what athletes do.”
A year after helping a strong senior class leave as champions, Robinson wanted that same feeling: Going out on top, leaving a legacy.
“Being a captain and leader and not be able to do it would have been tough,” Robinson said. “It just brings one more championship and more pride (to the program).
“We kept it going and we didn’t let down (last year’s seniors). Now it’s up to next year’s kids to carry it on.”