By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
If you know Ocean City senior offensive lineman Mark Kolmer at all, you won’t be the least bit surprised at what he did to help out Issac Robertson. Robertson is a junior, but is in his first year of varsity football, and came into this season with limited experience at the running back position. He played on the freshman team two years ago, mostly as a back-up on offense and defensive back, then stepped away from football last year to concentrate on basketball and baseball.
So, to help Robertson figure out the running back position, Kolmer took a marker and put the initials “IR” on the back of his pants. Just follow me, young fella, and you’ll be alright.
Robertson has been more than alright for the Red Raiders. In fact, he’s been one of the team’s most valuable players as the Red Raiders shook off a slow start and made a run in October to put themselves in position to play for a shot at the state playoffs. In seven games, Robertson has rushed for more than 400 yards, has more than 100 yards receiving and had six touchdowns heading into November.
“I have to credit my offensive line. They are always working hard at every practice,” Robertson said. “Kolmer wrote my initials on the back of his practice pants so I would follow him. It’s been working.”
“He didn’t play as a sophomore, and as a freshman he was about 5-foot-3. You get kids who play their freshman year and then don’t come back out. I knew he was a basketball and baseball player, and I talked to him a little bit and he decided he wanted to focus on those sports,” said Ocean City coach Kevin Smith. “When I heard he was interested in coming back out this year, I hadn’t seen him in a while. When he walked into the sign-up meeting, I couldn’t believe how tall and lean he had gotten. I didn’t recognize him at first.”
Robertson is 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds now, but as a freshman he was only about 5-3, 150. Smith said he was skeptical at first about Robertson’s commitment level upon his return to the program.
“At first, he wasn’t used to football conditioning, and July is tough. We work really hard in July on conditioning, and I wasn’t quite sure if he was going to stick with it, to be honest. But once August came around and we started getting in pads, you could see right away that he had a feel for where the cuts were. He’s a patient runner, which is interesting because that’s hard for younger kids to pick up. Everybody wants to hit the hole 90 miles-per-hour and sometimes you wind up running up the backs of your linemen. He just had a feel for (the position), which is uncommon for somebody with such little experience,” Smith said. “Defensively, right out of the chute I could see he was our best tackler because of his athleticism. He got on our radar pretty fast as soon as he got into pads.”
Robertson has contributed in all three phases of the game. Aside from more than 500 yards from scrimmage as a running back, he’s also one of the leading tacklers in the secondary, has two interceptions and a fumble recovery, and averages more than 27 yards on kickoff returns. He’s also blocked a punt on special teams.
“Last year, I just had a lot on my plate. Football was my third sport, but, this year everybody was telling me to play. I felt like I could come in and see what I could do, and everything has been working out. We conditioned like crazy this summer, so I was in pretty good shape for that first game against Oakcrest. I’ve started to get into a rhythm now,” Robertson said. “In pee wee football I was a guard, then got moved around to full back and tight end. I was more of a blocker, and freshman year I was a backup to Tommy Meehan, who is our linebacker now. But I’ve gotten a little taller and faster, so they have me at running back now and it’s been working out. In the beginning of the year, I was a little surprised (at my success) but I feel pretty good about where I am now.”
With Liam Bergman injured for much of the year, Smith needed another option to go along with Dan Walsh in the backfield. Robertson seemed to be the perfect answer because he was such a different back than Walsh. Walsh is a between-the-tackles type of runner, where as Robertson is most effective when he’s in space.
“I love that, because I know I have blockers in front of me and I know I’m just as fast as guys trying to catch me, so if I can out-run them, I can make some plays,” Robertson said.
His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield has been instrumental in Ocean City turning its season around. Through four games, the Red Raiders were just 1-3 and had gotten outscored 56-7 in the first two games — losses to Oakcrest and Cedar Creek. But in a 35-0 win over West Windsor-Plainsboro South in Week 3, Robertson had a pair of rushing touchdowns, and in a wild, 40-37 win over Middle Township three weeks later, he showed what kind of asset he could be in the passing game when he took a screen pass 79 yards for a touchdown.
“We haven’t had a kid in the backfield who we could scheme to get into space in a while. Issac doesn’t have fantastic, breakaway speed, but he makes people miss. And when you get into space, that’s the goal. And we pair him with Dan Walsh, who is a really nice inside runner, so we’re able to do things in the backfield this year that we weren’t able to the last couple of years,” Smith said. “I think that’s one of the most underrated aspects of the passing game, the running back outlet. We always tell our guys on defense that we’re going to drop and take away the downfield stuff, and if they throw it to the back out of the backfield, we’re going to rally around and make the tackle. But if you have a kid who can make people miss in open space, that little 4-yard swing pass can become a 15- or 20-yard gain. Andrew has his eyes downfield, but he knows he can swing it out there if he has to.”
Robertson has become a safety valve for senior quarterback Andrew Donoghue. If Donoghue goes through two or three progressions and nobody is open, he can dump it off to Robertson and usually gain some positive yardage, if not a big play.
“We have the luxury with Andrew being a three-year starter that he can go through progressions. When teams are making the swing pass the first look it’s not as effective because the defense hasn’t gotten into its drop coverage yet and they’ll jump the route right away. When you can get to your third read and the linebackers have already dropped back 12 yards, that makes that swing route that much more effective,” Smith said.
Robertson said it didn’t take long to assimilate back into the football program. He plays other sports with some of his football teammates and knows all the guys from growing up together.
“He’s a great kid to be around. He always has a smile on his face and has a fun personality. He’s quiet in the sense that he doesn’t call attention to himself. He fit in right away,” Smith said.
“After about a week, I felt pretty comfortable with the program. I’m friends with everyone on the team and we all get along pretty well,” Robertson said. “Donoghue and I play football, basketball and baseball together and we have gym class together. It’s great having him. He’s so experienced and knows every position, so I can ask him about whatever I need to. He helps me out all the time.”
Smith said he would love to get Robertson right into the offseason football training program in December, but he knows other sports take priority over lifting and running for football.
“Selfishly, I want him to get in our (offseason) weight program because I think with a few more pounds on him and some more strength he can pair the dynamic he has with his vision with a little more of an inside game,” Smith said. “But, I know he plays basketball and baseball, and that’s great for him. I think all the touches he’s gotten this year will be huge because he will hit the ground running (next year).”
Robertson said he will definitely be back next year. He’s gotten a taste of Friday night lights, and to a teenager, that can be intoxicating, scoring a touchdown and having a huge student section cheering your name. You don’t get that in baseball very often.
“It’s great because it’s more hyped up than other sports,” he said. “Nobody is like, ‘oh, man, did you see that play he had at third base the other day?’ But, in football, everyone is there watching and they see every play.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays