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July 17, 2012
Nickell Robey's introduction to college football in 2010 wasn't exactly the warmest of welcomes. That's been well-documented by now. You know the story.
As a freshman, the 5-foot-8 cornerback initially struggled to adjust to the pace of the game. Not to mention he was a part of a defense that surrendered 400 yards per contest - the most since USC began keeping track of the statistic in 1955.
Yet fast forward two years and circumstances have changed for Robey. He was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection as a sophomore. And last week, he was named to the preseason watch lists for the Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski Awards, which annually honor the nation's top defensive standout -- as well as the Jim Thrope Award for best defensive back. This is the kind of leap he's been expected to take.
When asked about the distinction, however, and specifically the Bednarik Award, Robey stumbled.
"What award is that?"
Then, when briefed, he smiled, a slight hint at the progress he's made over the last two seasons.
"Oh, that's a great accomplishment," the third-year cornerback said. "I'll have to live up to it then."
Robey's rise, in many ways, has mirrored that of USC's. He's gone from an overwhelmed freshman in a season that saw USC finish just 8-5, to a highly-regarded defensive back who's garnering no shortage of preseason accolades. It's a story not unlike that of the Trojans collectively who will likely be in the top-five of most rankings released over the next month.
So for now, it begs the question: what's changed for Robey and for USC's defense?
"I feel like just the overall mentality has," Robey says. "You have to have confidence. Without confidence on defense, you have nothing. If the offense doesn't score, we'll win. We have to have that type of mentality. We can't let anything get on us."
That confidence became quite visible over the second half of last season. In the first five games, USC surrendered on average 26.4 points a game. By comparison, over the final seven, after a bye the second weekend of October, that average dipped to 21 points, which includes the triple-overtime loss to Stanford that saw the Cardinal amass a total of 56 points.
Robey, looking back, says things just clicked.
"It just happens," Robey said. "You really can't pinpoint it sometimes. You see everyone's mind on the same page and it just clicks at once. It's not that one person or one thing. Everybody was hungry and we were getting criticized for a lot of things, so we wanted to overcome that."
Yes, they were getting criticized, in particular after a narrow home win against Arizona Oct. 1 that marked the first time in school history the Trojans had given up more than 40 points in consecutive games.
"Yeah, it bothered us," Robey admits. "It was just . . . bear with us, we have to get used to the defense, get used to the philosophy. But now it's like clockwork."
That's the expectation. For now, as fall camp, approaches Robey hopes to see that continue. For himself, he's looking to grow as well - in the weight room, on the field and in the film room.
"Monte [Kiffin] just tells me to play," says Robey, who's looking to add some weight - up to 175 pounds. "Gain some weight, but still also keep your speed."
For now, he says he's at 170, but he never stays content, always looking to grow as a player in all facets.
"We know we've got a lot of work," Robey says. "We just have to make sure we're getting there. Most of all, we're worried about getting everyone better."
Joey Kaufman is a Print and Digital Journalism major at USC and has covered the Trojans for the Daily Trojan, SB Nation and Neon Tommy since 2010. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeyRKaufman.