This is a feature on JMU middle linebacker Stephon Robertson. It ran on Nov. 7, 2013.
HARRISONBURG, Va. — Last semester, Stephon Robertson took an acting class. This semester, he is taking a poetry class and a script-writing class. He has written a poem about pink lady apples and a one-scene play about a black cop in 1960s South Carolina.
When he was a kid, he wanted to go to art school, and he still draws cartoons and doodles. He said he likes the musicals “Grease” — “I grew up with ‘Grease.’ I like it. Hell, I even watch ‘Grease 2’” — and “West Side Story,” as well as the work of David Mamet, notably “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
Robertson — a 22-year-old, 5-foot-11, 230-pound middle linebacker with legs like barrels and a neck nearly as wide as his head — has a reputation for being a thinker and one of the James Madison football team’s more philosophical players.
“He’s very deep and metaphoric and uses a lot of similes, and [he] will say things, and you’re like, ‘Stephon, what did you say?’” JMU free safety Dean Marlowe said. “And I’ll be like, ‘You know what? Hold up. You’re right. You got it right.’”
That applies to football, too.
Robertson is having a career year for the Dukes (6-3 overall, 3-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association), who play at New Hampshire on Saturday. The senior from Alexandria leads Division I-AA with 111 tackles — which ties his career-high — and has 415 for his career, putting him 91 behind NFL great Charles Haley for the most in JMU history. The record for tackles in a season is 167. It’s been held by Clyde Hoy since 1981.
In 2012, Robertson was the CAA Defensive Player of the Year. This season, he is a strong contender for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the top defensive player in all of I-AA. As a junior last year, he finished eighth in the voting, falling shy of becoming the third Madison player to win the award. Derrick Lloyd won it in 2001, and Arthur Moats won it 2009.
“I’ve always said, playing linebacker is like playing golf,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. “It’s not how good your good shots are; it’s how bad your bad shots are. And playing linebacker, a lot of times, it’s not how great your great plays are; it’s how bad your poor plays are. He never makes any bad plays. He’s never out of position. He’s just always — he’s so consistent.”
The Dukes perhaps can thank Robertson’s interest in art, which he said forced him to think abstractly and helped him detect the nuance and subtleties of opposing offenses while watching extra film — as much as 45 minutes a day.
“Just to have a more open mind, seeing the whole picture,” Robertson said of the art influence. “’Cause normally, I would be like — how can I say this? — I would be more confident in what I know and stick to that, but I’m not trying to look for every single thing that might be different. And [now], I want to know why this guard is always pulling compared to this guard. I want to know everything.”
Initially, Robertson said, he did not watch a lot of film, a bad habit he said he learned from older players when he got to JMU.
“All the older guys, when I first got here, they were like, ‘We watch film so much, you’re not going to want to watch film,’ and I took that as, OK, I’m not going to watch film,” said Robertson, a four-year starter. “And I’d just go out and play based on what I knew off practice and meetings.”
During preseason practice, Robertson started watching extra film, organizing group study sessions for the defensive players. He also became a tutor for JMU’s young linebackers, including freshman Gage Steele, who is a Rookie of the Year candidate in the CAA.
Matthews said Robertson “did it all on his own” and discovered that “when you really learn football is when you start teaching it.” Robertson compared watching film — he watches the same stuff over and over to bludgeon it into his memory — to rereading a book.
“The first time, it’s like you, oh, you know it’s good; the second time, you pick up something new,” he said. “It’s kind of like that, watching film. You might find certain tendencies a lineman has, and then the second time you watch it, you’ll realize once the lineman’s stance is like this and the other [lineman’s] isn’t the same.”
On the field, that allows Robertson to do some freelancing. He admitted he doesn’t always stick to his assignment or his gap. The film-study and uncommonly good field vision permit Robertson to occasionally improvise and go for the ball — a reason he’s had double-digit tackles in seven of the Dukes’ nine games.
Marlowe said Robertson’s ability to cover the field allows him to focus on pass defense and less on the run, and defensive coordinator Kyle Gillenwater linked Robertson’s skill at quickly assessing situations to his abstract, artistic leanings.
“He’s a thinker,” said Gillenwater, also JMU’s linebackers coach. “I did not know his class schedule until you told me, but it doesn’t surprise me. He’ll look at a play on film and he will analyze instead of just saying, ‘OK, that’s what it was.’ He’ll analyze as somebody would a play or a poem or something. He gets in detail about stuff.”
The poem about the pink lady apples is detailed, describing a trip he took to an orchard. He wrote another poem about his grandfather, and then a scene for the script-writing class about a breakup between a boyfriend and a girlfriend. Robertson said he writes about things he knows and things that have meaning to him — hence the scene about the black cop, who is struggling against racism in the South. At the end of the scene, he is lynched by a mob.
“I am proud of the whole civil rights thing. It’s a pretty great era for us African-Americans and stuff like that,” Robertson said. “But it’s more so, just picking a topic that you can really hit home on.”
Gillenwater wouldn’t compare Robertson’s on-the-field abilities to one of JMU’s greatest linebackers: Akeem Jordan, who now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. Gillenwater said the game has changed. Jordan, he said, never played against the option and zone-read offenses that are now so prevalent in college football. Gillenwater said it was more of a power game in the mid-2000s when Jordan played after graduating from Harrisonburg High School.
But in terms of production, Robertson — only a fringe NFL prospect because of his size — is certainly Jordan-esque.
“The first year we redshirted [Robertson], I had no idea he would be this good,” Gillenwater said. “And it’s probably a good analysis of what he told you about his abstract thinking. He can see things most people can’t see out there.”