Ziniu Chen | Staff PhotographerFootball
Blurred lines: Sophomore linemen bring unique athletic backgrounds to Syracuse offense
CORRECTIONS: In a previous version of this article, the date and location of the summer football practice in 2011 was misstated. The practice occurred on Aug. 5, 2011 in the Carrier Dome. The Daily Orange regrets these errors.
Freshmen Nick Robinson, Ivan Foy and Rob Trudo lined up on one end of the Carrier Dome football field, feeling the tail end of their first summer practice as members of the Syracuse football team.
The temperature peaked at 93 degrees with humidity on Aug. 5, 2011, and Robinson remembers thinking the session was over after the offensive linemen completed a rigorous set of manual squats.
The linemen were issued to run three 400-yard stretches — up the field and back twice with two minutes break in between. Robinson only made it 30 yards.
“I’ll always remember that,” Robinson said.
He wasn’t alone in the struggle. Foy and Trudo laughed about the practice looking back on it, but there’s no question — they were all out of shape. That’s where the transformation began.
Against Wagner on Saturday, Syracuse rushed for a season-high 236 yards complete with two rushing touchdowns, the first opened up by a pulling Robinson block.
The three are now sophomores, starting on the Orange line. Plugging in the holes around proven senior center Macky MacPherson and junior left tackle Sean Hickey, the second-year linemen Robinson, Foy and Trudo have made names for themselves with their athleticism, as well as their unique backgrounds. Robinson had been almost exclusively a run blocker while at nearby Baldwinsville High School. Foy can do a backflip — with a couple of feet of clearance. And Trudo was recruited by Penn State for volleyball.
“They like being athletes, they don’t want to be Clydesdales,” said Will Hicks, SU assistant athletics director for athletic performance. “They don’t want to be three yards and a cloud of dust. They like the movement skills, and those are the things that they’re good at.”
‘The Road Raider’
When Robinson came to Syracuse, he arrived as a right tackle almost exclusively used for power running. That’s just what Baldwinsville head coach Carl Sanfilippo does.
“His nickname is ‘The Road Raider,’” Hickey said.
Hickey remembers coaches raving about his conditioning and speed during the recruiting process. But when he arrived at training camp, he’d clearly put on weight.
That’s because the 6-foot-5, 297-pound Robinson was coming off a bout with mononucleosis that forced him to miss the final game of his senior year.
Coming into camp, he knew he was already a little behind.
“I wasn’t athletic enough, I wasn’t strong enough and coming in I had to lose some weight,” Robinson said.
After playing nine games primarily on special teams as a redshirt freshman, Robinson gradually grew into the heavy-handed, bull-strong right guard who paved the way for Jerome Smith’s 2-yard touchdown run against the Seahawks on Saturday.
“Nick’s come so far in his conditioning,” Foy said. “He got his weight up, because when we first got here we were in no shape or form ready to play. Me, Nick and Rob got our weight right, got our conditioning right and got ready to play.”
Foy remembers jumping on his mother’s bed as a child. That’s when he first began to experiment with rolling and flipping around.
But it wasn’t until he saw a cousin do a backflip, that the now 6-foot-4, 313-pound right tackle decided he should give it a shot.
He’s landed it once perfectly on grass, but sticks to pools for risk of landing on his neck or knees.
Still, MacPherson said he’s never heard of an offensive lineman capable of the feat, and Hicks barely flinched when he learned the news.
“He’s very light on his feet for a big guy, you don’t even hear him hit the ground,” Hicks said. “He’s more of a big skilled guy.”
Foy made four starts at right guard last season, but felt his lack of conditioning in the second halves of games. His first start against Northwestern was particularly bad.
“After a while, I couldn’t keep up with Macky and (Zack) Chibane and them,” Foy said.
This summer, he took to the weight-loss approach. While Foy joked that Hickey’s straight chicken breast and brown rice combination wasn’t exactly attainable, he still dropped 10 pounds and feels the difference already this season.
“I just stuck with the coach Hicks regimen, did a lot of running, tried to keep up with the people I shouldn’t be keeping up with and it paid off,” Foy said. “I can say I’m one of the fastest o-lineman, maybe the third or fourth.”
For a collegiate lineman to play volleyball in high school is rare, but for one to be recruited by a Division I program is even rarer.
Trudo grew from a setter to middle and outside hitter, and began to get noticed at Penn State’s annual high school camp. A Nittany Lions All-American junior outside hitter pulled Trudo aside during his second camp for some pointers and individual teaching.
“That was when I really had a great performance,” Trudo said.
While the option of being able to play college volleyball was comforting, Trudo said he never seriously considered it. Once the head coach was fired in the middle of his junior year, Trudo quit the sport to focus on football.
However, Trudo said his volleyball experience pays off in lateral quickness, agility and timing.
Trudo has showed that lateral quickness through this training camp and into the season. Cutting has been a huge point of emphasis for offensive line coach Pat Perles, and Trudo said there’s no better feeling than mowing down a linebacker.
Take Penn State linebacker Mike Hull, for example. Trudo broke through to the second level on an outside-zone read play in SU’s season opener and took him down. Hull had to leave the game and get a knee brace put on in the locker room, Trudo said.
“Rob’s going to try to go out and knock you out, like a bull fighter,” Hickey said. “He just loves to go for the knockouts. He thinks so much about going out and killing the other person.”
And he has the strength to do it. Hicks said Trudo is the second-best bench presser on the team behind Hickey. Trudo maxes around 485 pounds and can rep 225 36 times, Hicks said.
“Trudo’s like a bull in the china shop,” Hicks said. “Everything’s high speed with Trudy.”
The three sophomores agreed that they’re getting more comfortable with the outside-zone read — a series of plays that is getting called more this season. Trudo and Hickey are still mastering the timing of pulling and helping, but the difference between now and camp is unmistakable.
And once these guys are able to get out in space and put their hands on opposing linebackers, the SU running backs are lengthening their gains. The Wagner game was a perfect example of that as the Orange averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
“You are right when you say that we’re athletic,” Foy said. “I know as all three of us as a group, we are all intense, are all physical and are all ready to just pound somebody out, just hit them in the mouth.”
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