Stan Hixon was an elder of Penn State's last coaching staff, a 30-year veteran coach who tutored dozens of NFL wide receivers. He often pressed Allen Robinson to do more, to run better routes, to break bigger gains, but he always placed the receiver's future in a bright context.
"In my years coaching wide receivers, he's one of the best - if not the best - wide receiver I've had," Hixon, the Lions' former receivers coach who joined Bill O'Brien's NFL staff in Houston, said last year. " He's going to be a pro player."
Robinson's professional career could begin as early as Thursday, when the three-day NFL draft opens in New York. The two-time Big Ten receiver of the year is convinced he's first-round material, potentially joining Bryant Johnson as Penn State's only receivers selected in the opening round in the last 20 years.
More likely, though, Robinson will be a second- or third-round pick, considering the long list of fellow underclassmen receivers who declared for this year's draft. In fact, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. suggested that Robinson might have benefited from one more year at Penn State.
"Had he gone back for another year, he probably would have been a late [first-round] or early [second-round] pick," Kiper said on a recent conference call. "If he could have got that speed improved and got that 40 time up."
On Jan. 2, the same day Penn State formally announced O'Brien's departure to Houston, Robinson announced his departure from Penn State. The receiver was in a delicate spot. With 174 catches over the past two seasons, Robinson had fast-tracked himself to the NFL. Further, a new coaching staff with a new offense might have altered his production and lowered his stock.
But Robinson joined a parade of talented underclassmen receivers to leave early for the NFL. Thirteen of the top 14 wideouts, according to NFLDraftScout.com. are underclassmen. Kiper said just one senior is likely to be drafted among the first nine or 10 receivers.
"It's a tough call when underclassmen are coming out and you see everybody joining you," Kiper said. "It's not the optimum situation. But he's the kind of guy I think about as a second- or third-round pick. More of a [third-round pick] right now with questions about speed."
Robinson ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in February, a time nowhere close to the top 20 among receivers. He bettered that to a sub-4.5 time (and improved other combine measureables) at Penn State's pro day last month, prompting former NFL personnel guru Gil Brandt to note Robinson's stock had risen again.
Still, most mocks project Robinson as a second- or third-round pick. Kiper called Robinson a "value" pick in the third round.
But Kiper added that Robinson would need to work on his "speed and separation" to raise his first-round profile. Mike Mayock of the NFL Network, meanwhile, has pegged Robinson to the second round, saying combine stats can be belabored.
"I think we do get carried away," Mayock said recently. " The best drafting teams are the ones that put the heavy emphasis on the [video] tape and use the measurables as a crosscheck to make sure they've got everything where they want it."
In preparing Robinson for the NFL, Hixon invited him to study receivers such as Chad Johnson, Steve Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, all of whom share some physical traits with Robinson. The former Penn State wideout, however, compared himself to Reggie Wayne.
''You like the size, you like his ability to go down the field in traffic," Kiper said. "When he's one-on-one with the corner, he's going to outduel that cornerback. He did that time and again."
Last year Hixon called Robinson perhaps the most competitive receiver he had coached. As Robinson said at the combine, that will be more important to his NFL career than where he's drafted.
"Wherever I go, if I do go in the third round, it is what it is," Robinson told the Detroit Free Press. "I don't have any control over that. But I can control how hard I go out there and compete every day and stuff like that. That's the biggest thing for me, just sitting back always being doubted."
PENN STATE'S PROSPECTS
Penn State has had at least two players selected in each of the last NFL drafts. Three might be the number for the Lions this week. In addition to Allen Robinson, here's a look at Penn State's draft prospects.
DAQUAN JONES: Defensive tackle, at times Penn State's most dominant player last season, getting third- and fourth-round grades.
JOHN URSCHEL: Offensive lineman whom Bill O'Brien called a 10-year pro. Should get called in Round 4 or 5.
GLENN CARSON: Productive and durable but a step behind other LBs. Late-rounder, perhaps?
BRANDON FELDER: Receiver might catch a few looks.
GARRY GILLIAM: Lineman/tight end would have helped Lions this year.
MATT LEHMAN: Great tight-end size (6-6) but coming off injury.
STEPHEN OBENG-AGYAPONG: Versatile defensive back, possible special-teams player.
MALCOLM WILLIS: Hard-hitting safety who would need to improve in coverage.