A lot has happened since Merlin Robertson won Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2018.
The peaks and valleys of ASU football are well-documented, but lost in translation is one of the finest defensive prospects Tempe has seen in the last decade. Yes, Robertson is held in a high-regard among fans. But the general sentiment is that his production fell off since 2018, when in reality, the numbers resemble more of a plateau.
Expectations were sky-high in 2019 for the four-star prospect after his breakout freshman season, but his numbers did not meet the upper-echelon status he received preseason. He still finished third on the team in tackles (72, five for loss), but Robertson had previously been tagged as one of the nation’s best.
In the shortened 2020 season, Robertson was a highlight, on the record for not missing a single tackle, and winning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after recording a forced fumble and an interception in the gut-wrenching 28-27 loss to USC. He credited his resurgence to diet and lifestyle changes, but the the smaller sample size in the four-game season did not generate the same buzz he heralded in 2018.
Standing at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, Robertson is the prototypical off-ball linebacker, and his sure-handed tackling and pass-coverage skills have remained his strong suits. He tacked on three more interceptions in 2021, and was the conference’s sixth-highest graded linebacker by Pro Football Focus (minimum 400 snaps).
There is no hiding the off-the-field dramas Robertson and the team experienced since his freshman season, mainly an NCAA investigation and the numerous subsequent coaching changes. It is easy to think he may have had success at another power-five school with fewer external distractions, but Robertson, like his fellow linebacker mate Kyle Soelle, has not gone anywhere.
As he reaches prospect status, there is no reason to believe Merlin Robertson won’t be playing with an edge. This upcoming season will likely be the last chance for the former preseason All-American to solidify himself as a guaranteed draft selection.
Robertson can join the likes of former Sun Devil linebackers Christian Sam and Darien Butler in the NFL should he be drafted next April. To get there, he will have to continue his string of good-health, and remain a consistent force in run-support and pass-coverage.
Merlin Robertson with the quick head check midway through his pick-six iykyk pic.twitter.com/skSP479M3d— Cole Topham (@HamAnalysis) November 14, 2021
With Antonio Pierce, who specialized in linebackers, out as defensive coordinator, it will be interesting to see how current DC Donnie Henderson utilizes the unit in his scheme. For now, it may be the most consistent group on defense.