Arizona State’s Merlin Robertson must work magic to reach the NFL

It’s time for Merlin to talk about a career in the NFL.

It’s now or never for Arizona State’s fifth-year senior linebacker, and it looks like he’s ready for the pressure.

“Everyone’s journey is different,” said Merlin Robertson. “I’m just learning to keep my head down, be humble and work hard…striving to be a professional.”

Robertson has been locked up for months, preparing for the opportunity the 2022 season presents. He’s lost the baby fat and bad weight that came with him to Tempe from his hometown of Gardena, Calif. He overcame his quiet nature to express himself enough to be chosen as team captain. And he was named to the Butuks Award Watch List, along with the nation’s top linebackers.

ASU coach Herm Edwards acknowledges Merlin’s focus.

“His body has changed. All his ways (changed). He grew up,” Edwards said.

“It’s like, OK, he made a business decision to come back: ‘I want to play better, so I can (maybe) get drafted.’ … So you see that in him, and the players respect him.

“I was not really satisfied”

Could it be because he watched his friend and former teammate Darien Butler at training camp with the Las Vegas Raiders? Maybe it’s because the difference between the first linebacker taken at the draft and an undrafted rookie free agent is about $11 million? Maybe he’s maturing like a young man should?

“(It was really) just me sitting with my family, thinking about the possibilities that can happen,” Robertson said. “I wasn’t really happy with what I did last year, so I decided ‘why not?’ Just give it another chance, put your head down and keep working and see where it goes from there.

Robertson’s ASU career has been filled with ups and downs. He was chosen National Defensive Player of the Week at Walter Camp after just his second game. Later that season, he was selected as the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.

Then Merlin’s magic ride stopped.

He missed the opportunity to show his talent at the Las Vegas Bowl after his rookie season, dealing with a family emergency at home. A year later, Robertson’s father died, just days after attending ASU football practice. Then the pandemic hit, ruining what many observers thought must have been Robertson’s final days on campus.

The ASU players didn’t know who they would face or when. The program was leveled by allegations of NCAA recruiting violations. And one after another, players and coaches left Tempe.

Robertson stayed, got married, graduated, rehabilitated all the nagging little things that slow a player’s development, and this season he will rally his teammates around the statue of Pat Tillman in the north area of ​​the Sun Devil Stadium and lead them onto the field as captain, an honor that brings respect and responsibility in equal measure.

The recognition was overwhelming.

“I was excited,” Robertson said. “Honestly, I really didn’t know how to feel. I couldn’t thank Coach Herm enough for trusting me to represent this university…I was just honored and blessed.

‘Let’s go… let’s go to work’

Maybe he should have come out early, like Butler did, especially since Robertson was once called the “Batman” to Butler’s “Robin”? Maybe he should have been more disruptive, given the stats that show he’s one of the toughest tackles in top-tier college football? Maybe he should have gotten into shape sooner with all the money and NFL opportunities available?

October 30, 2021;  Tempe, Arizona, USA;  Arizona State Sun Devils linebacker Merlin Robertson (8) reacts with teammate Darien Butler (20) after intercepting a pass intended for Washington State Cougars running back Max Borghi in the first half at the Sun Devil Stadium.

Maybe. But then he wouldn’t have another year under linebackers coach Chris Claiborne, who has already walked the path Robertson is on. Claiborne won the Butkus Award (USC, 1998) and had an eight-year NFL career.

“Knowing where I’m from,” Claiborne said, “anything less, I won’t be happy.”

“I’m excited for the kid, he came back…I said to him, ‘Let’s go. You graduated. Let’s go to work. You prepare yourself every day to be the NFL guy you want to be. »

Expectations are clear. Robertson needs more sacks, more steals, more impact on special teams. Another proof that it won’t work *poof*.

Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum has watched Robertson’s development, and he has a lot to compare to. Slocum coached Claiborne in college as well as Patrick Willis (Butkus Award, Mississippi, 2006) and Dat Nguyen (Lombardi Award, Texas A&M, 1998).

ASU's Herm Edwards and Shawn Slocum chat before the 4A State Championship between Salpointe and Saguaro on Friday November 30, 2018 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Arizona.  #azhsfb

“What I’ve seen during his time here,” Slocum said of Robertson, “is his dedication to the game, and his dedication to making his body the best it can be, and his dedication to being the best he can be. ‘pupil of the game.’

He knows what Robertson will have to do to get his name engraved on trophies that rank him among the best of the best.

“When you start comparing the best players, basically in college football history, who have turned pro, we’re talking rare air,” Slocum said. “At some point he will have to demonstrate his ability to (put himself in this class). I think he put himself in the best possible position in the way he approached the game, especially in the later part of his college career.

Merlin has nothing else to do but get himself a job in the NFL.

It’s now or never, and it starts Thursday night at Sun Devil Stadium against Northern Arizona University.

Contact Moore at [email protected] or 602-444-2236. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @SayingMoore.

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