Fit to fight: Alabama's A'Shawn Robinson is eating much smarter and playing much better
A'Shawn Robinson used to eat like a typical college student.
The intimidating, bearded Alabama defensive tackle would gorge on pizza and buffalo wings late at night. Only the 6' 4", 312-pound junior did so excessively.
It might be a large pizza one night or at least 25 wings on another, always washed down by his favorite drink, Sprite.
"I was terrible about just ordering stuff," Robinson tells The Inside Read.
But Robinson isn't anymore after switching to a healthier diet following last season. He also doesn't eat as late or as much.
His staples have become grilled chicken and salads or sushi. He's also drinking water instead of Sprite and eating more fruit.
With his new dietary regimen, Robinson has lost eight pounds, which has helped to increase his explosiveness. His eight quarterback hurries are double what he had all of last season.
But it's the punishing Robinson's run-stopping ability that the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide (7–1, 4–1 SEC) will need in Saturday night's home game against No. 2 LSU (7–0, 4–0) and star tailback Leonard Fournette, who leads the FBS in rushing yards (1,352). Alabama ranks third nationally in run defense (78.5 yards per game) and first the SEC.
"It's been good for me," Robinson says of his diet. "I feel great. My body feels a lot better."
The weight loss has helped Robinson with his pass-rushing technique, which he focused on during the off-season. He put particular emphasis on getting off the blocks of opposing linemen.
"I'm stronger and quicker," Robinson says. "I'm faster off the ball."
That was evident against Tennessee last month, when a double-teamed Robinson scooped a fourth-quarter fumble out of the air and returned it nine yards to the Volunteers' four-yard line to seal Alabama's 19–14 victory. Still, his sleeker frame hasn't translated into as many sacks as Robinson would like.
He has 26 tackles, but only a half sack, after being shut out in that category last year.
"I do get tired of hearing about that," says Robinson of his lack of sacks.
As a freshman in 2013, Robinson had 5.5 sacks, but back then he wasn't being double-teamed as much as he is now. He's still sticking to his goal of 10 sacks this season, but is more concerned about his team's goals, which include winning the SEC championship.
"If I don't get sacks, I'm O.K. with that," Robinson says.
So are NFL scouts, who have projected Robinson to be picked in the top half of the first round of next year's draft, if, as expected, he leaves school after this season. They've noticed his increased explosiveness and improved endurance.
"I'm able to sustain longer instead of dying out," Robinson says.
It's also helped Robinson that he's taking better care of his body in other ways too. He tries to spend his free time off his feet and relaxing.
That often means resting in bed while listening to the music of some of his favorite artists, including Imagine Dragons, The Lumineers and Kirk Franklin.
"I clear my mind," Robinson says. "I try to stay away from watching too much TV, like sports and stuff. Playing football, you've got to get away sometimes."
Another outlet for Robinson is drawing, especially with pastels, but he doesn't get to do it as much as he'd like. He likes to sketch people's faces and birds, a hobby that dates back to him taking art classes at Arlington Heights High in Fort Worth, Texas.
"I'm good at it," Robinson says.
Just like he's good at adhering to his new diet. He insists it's as simple as being mindful about what, when and how much he eats.
"It's not been hard at all," Robinson says.
Opponents just wish Robinson was eating like a typical college student again.
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Iowa State's Mike Warren hits the ground running
Louis Ayeni was watching a game at powerhouse Blue Springs (Mo.) High two years ago when a man approached him and started talking about a running back in Lawton, Okla., named Mike Warren.
Back then, Ayeni was the associate head coach and run game coordinator at Toledo, which didn't recruit much in the Sooner State, but the man kept gushing about Warren.
"He's tearing it up," Ayeni recalls being told by the man.
So Ayeni called a friend in Oklahoma, who also raved about the game-breaking Warren. When Ayeni watched Warren's tape, the coach saw him repeatedly rip off touchdown runs of more than 50 yards.
"Damn, this kid's pretty good," Ayeni recalls thinking.
Warren has been exactly that this season for Iowa State, which landed him after they hired Ayeni to be their running backs coach in January 2014. The 6-foot, 200-pounder leads all FBS freshmen with 954 rushing yards on 153 carries, and has scored four touchdowns despite the fact that he hardly played in his team's first two games.
In a surprising 24–0 victory over Texas last Saturday night, the redshirt freshman ran for 157 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries for Iowa State (3–5, 2–3 Big 12). On Saturday he will return home to face the team that slow-played him in recruiting, 15th-ranked Oklahoma (7–1, 4–1).
"He's playing out of his mind," Ayeni tells The Inside Read. "He's playing really good right now."
Ayeni, who is regarded as one of college football's brightest young assistants, has been a believer in Warren ever since he saw him on tape for the first time.
"He's got the vision and the burst," Ayeni says. "It's a smooth little deal he's got, but best thing he has is the great passion he runs with. His two-yard gains become four-yard gains because he's driving his legs and getting his pad level off."
Warren made an official visit to Toledo while Ayeni was still an assistant with the Rockets, but he didn't commit. Warren's only Power Five scholarship offer at the time was from Washington State, but he was interested in seeing how things were going to play out with the Sooners.
Oklahoma expressed interested in Warren, but saw him only as a fallback option in case they didn't get the running back they really wanted, Joe Mixon (who is now playing for the Sooners). While Warren was waiting, Ayeni took the job at Iowa State.
During one of Ayeni's first meetings in Ames, Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads led his coaching staff through a fast-paced discussion about everybody's recruiting plan for the final month before signing day. Ayeni still wanted to recruit Warren and had mentioned him to some of the program's recruiting staffers.
"I've got this kid that's really good," Ayeni told them.
But Ayeni wasn't sure whether he should speak up about Warren in the meeting. Finally, towards the end, Rhoads asked if there were any questions or if anyone had anything else to say.
Ayeni was nervous, but asked Rhoads if the staff could watch video of Warren. It was the same video that Ayeni had first seen.
As the staff watched, no one said a word. The deafening silence concerned Ayeni.
"I'm sitting there like, Damn, they must have some good backs here," Ayeni says. "I thought everybody thought I was crazy."
When Warren's tape ended after four minutes of silence, Rhoads finally spoke.
"Everybody good?" Rhoads asked.
His coaching staff nodded their heads in affirmation.
"Well then," Rhoads said, "scratch all those plans we just made because I'm headed to Lawton, Oklahoma."
Ayeni and Rhoades visited Warren at home. Warren had wondered if Ayeni was going to keep recruiting him at Iowa State. The next weekend he made an official visit to Ames, even though other schools, including Arkansas, were trying to discourage him from taking the trip.
On Warren's way home, then Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Hammock called and made a pitch for the Badgers. A couple days later, Ayeni committed to the Cyclones.
"We were lucky," Ayeni says.
Warren redshirted last year because of an early-season shoulder injury. He came back from it quickly and spent the rest of the season lighting up Iowa State's defense in practice as a scout team player.
"Everyday, there was something that he was doing," Ayeni says. "Everybody was taking notice. I couldn't wait to get my hands on him for real."
Warren flashed potential this year in preseason camp, but Ayeni says that he also missed some practices because of injuries. Warren began this season backing up redshirt sophomore Tyler Brown.
But after Brown struggled in the Cyclones' second game, a 31–17 loss to Iowa, Ayeni decided to start Warren the next week, against Toledo, Ayeni's former team. Against the Rockets, Warren rushed for a then career-high 126 yards on 21 carries in Iowa State's closer-than-expected 30–23 double overtime loss.
Since then, Warren has rushed for at least 145 yards in all but one of his team's games.
"He's just kept getting better and better," Ayeni says. "You can just see him understanding what's going on. When I'm talking to him on the sideline, we speak the same language now. Instead of me telling him what's going on, he's telling me. It's been really fun to watch him grow and mature."
Warren has answered the questions that Iowa State had at running back entering this season, and has also helped to resolve those on the offensive line.
"He's made their job easier because they know if they can get a hat on somebody, he's going to hit that crease and go," Ayeni says.
Opponents have learned that too, with Warren having runs of at least 41 yards in half of his starts this season.
"I don't think there's a guy his age better," Ayeni says. "There's some talented guys out there and for what we're asking him to do and the situation he's in, he's doing an outstanding job. I wouldn't trade him for anybody else. I'm really proud of what's he done. I can't wait to see how much better he gets from here on out."
Yet that doesn't mean that Ayeni is going to lavish Warren with too much praise. He likes to tease his star running back that he's the team's second-best player from Oklahoma, behind freshman wide receiver Carson Epps, who's 12th on the team in receiving yards.
"He wants to shut me up," Ayeni says with a laugh.
Ayeni also likes to razz Warren about his "interesting" haircut styles. He's currently got an orange Mohawk.
"Part of my off-season project is try to make sure he looks right," Ayeni says.
Ayeni would also someday like to find the man who first turned him on to Warren. He's not sure that the stranger knows what he's inspired.
"I'd tell him thank you and give him a big hug," Ayeni says.
Just like Ayeni would also like to know the man's recommendations on other recruits.
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