Willie Robinson had his heart set on playing for North Texas as the days counted down to national signing day in 2015.
The former Tyler Junior College standout had a scholarship offer and felt comfortable with the idea of playing for the Mean Green.
One call changed the course of his career.
UNT, a school that had seemed so interested in him before, yanked his scholarship offer.
“It was hard when they pulled it,” Robinson said. “I told [former UNT wide receivers coach Mike] Grant I understood why.”
UNT filled the scholarship Robinson was in line to take, but invited him to join the team anyway as a preferred walk-on.
Robinson swallowed his pride and accepted, a move that has paid off for everyone involved heading into the Mean Green’s game Saturday at No. 23 Florida.
Robinson started UNT’s season-opening loss to SMU and has been among the Mean Green’s top offensive weapons through the first two weeks of the season.
“Willie is smooth and gets in and out of the cuts,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said. “He plays fast, understands the system and where he is supposed to be. He is not there yet, but he is able to play faster than some other guys because he understands the system. He works hard at it. He will get better with more reps.”
Robinson has been pretty good already. The 6-foot junior caught eight passes for a team-high 73 yards against the Mustangs and added another catch for 13 yards last week in UNT’s win over Bethune-Cookman.
Highly regarded sophomore Terian Goree leads UNT with 12 catches for 90 yards, but Robinson isn’t far behind with nine catches for 86 yards. Robinson’s totals exceed those of several scholarship players on the roster.
The Fort Worth native remains a walk-on and is paying his way to school this year.
“I am confident in myself and felt like if I had an offer before I could get one again,” Robinson said. “I don’t know what it was about North Texas. Once I knew they were looking at me, I wanted to come here.”
Robinson’s teammates describe him as a quiet person with determination on the field that speaks for him.
“He plays with a chip on his shoulder,” UNT offensive lineman Sam Rice said. “He is definitely out to prove himself.”
Robinson spent last season as a redshirt and traveled with the team. He began to emerge as a potential playmaker over the last few months.
“You saw some flashes in the spring, even though he was nicked up,” Littrell said. “His biggest jump came over the summer. He had a really good fall camp. We were excited about the way he was playing. He has gotten bigger, stronger and faster. It’s a credit to the way he worked. He has done some good things and been consistent. That is what we need.”
Robinson caught a 22-yard pass in the first half against SMU and caught three straight from Mason Fine during a touchdown drive in the closing moments of the game.
UNT elevated Fine to the starting lineup against Bethune-Cookman largely because of the way he commanded the Mean Green’s offense during that drive. Robinson was a key asset along the way.
“I wasn’t nervous at SMU,” Robinson said. “I was more eager to make big plays. That is what I came to do. It was a good learning experience with the speed of the game and learning to finish plays.”
Robinson didn’t play as large of a role against Bethune-Cookman and caught one pass for 13 yards. Robinson says he is capable of more.
“I am not happy with the way I have played so far,” Robinson said. “I think I can play at a higher level. I have to focus on what I am doing and grind.”
Focusing on his goals is what has helped Robinson get to where he is today as a significant part of UNT’s wide receiver corps. He could have chosen to follow another path after UNT pulled his scholarship offer.
“Some people have a plan,” Robinson said. “I try to commit to a plan and make it work.”
Robinson is well on his way to reaching that goal heading into UNT’s game at Florida and is hoping to gain a little notoriety for contributions that have exceeded expectations thus far.
“I kind of feel overlooked, but I have to stay humble,” Robinson said. “The game will come to me if I work hard. I am where I am supposed to be.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.