Cal freshman receiver Demetris Robertson's innocence belies the talent and ability that could make him great

BERKELEY -- Cal five-star freshman wide receiver Demetris Robertson sees the world as full of wonder and the remarkable, and yet, when he looks in the mirror, he's just Demetris.

BERKELEY -- It's the second week of fall camp. Practice is over. It's been over for 20 minutes. There are still five California players lingering on the field. Two for interviews. Two are at the far end of the stadium, slowly making their way towards the north tunnel. Demetris Robertson has just finished taking 200 JUGGS machine catches. He's making his way towards the tunnel, when a Cal media relations employee jokingly says, "You can't leave yet. You're not the last guy on the field."

"Oh," Robertson says. He nods his head, and makes a U-turn.

"No, wait, I was just joking; it's OK," the Cal employee yells after him.

Too late. Robertson is going to run a few more route trees. His voice is softer than a down comforter, but it's wrapped around a skill set that's as sharp as an obsidian scalpel, and just as volcanic. But, he wants it to be more precise. He wants it to be more explosive. He wants it to be perfect.

"For people that don't know Demetris, he's the most humble kid in the world," says inside receivers coach Jacob Peeler, who recruited Robertson. "He just wants to get better. He wants to master every single thing."

Former Cal basketball player and current Boston Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown said that it takes 10,000 hours to be great, so he was going to work for 20,000 hours. Robertson -- who met Brown on his official visit to Berkeley -- is very much in that mold. He just doesn't say it. “He works. That’s what you want," says head coach Sonny Dykes. "When you recruit a kid that’s as talented as he is, you want him to have a work ethic, and a desire to be great. Typically, those guys that are really good athletes, that have toughness, which he certainly has, have a desire to be great. One day, they become great. We think that’s where he’s headed. He’s got a lot to learn, and a lot of work that needs to be done, but he certainly has an opportunity to do that.”

For all but one day of fall camp -- I counted -- Robertson was in fact, the final man on the field. The one five-star prospect was the last into the locker room. It's less a point of pride than it is programming.

"He's working to get better, right now," said Peeler, a few days later, looking back out on the field. Robertson is in the shadows, catching passes, looking the ball in, after the 10th day of camp. "He wants to be great. Recruiting the kid, going through that entire process with him, it was his own unique process. On top of that, the kid soaks in everything you say. When I went to visit him one day, I had an iPad, and it had a bunch of different videos on it. The kid watched every single video. That's how he is. Now, he's trying to work on every single thing he can as a receiver, to improve. The kid is ..."

Peeler's voice trailed off as he looked out at Robertson, and he shook his head.

"There's not many people that walk the earth that have the work ethic that that kid does, especially as highly-recruited as he is," Peeler said. "Most times, kids like that come in, think they've got it all figured out. Not so much with him."

Cal fans remember one of those kinds of five-stars: Chris Martin, the defensive end/outside linebacker from the 2010 class. As soon as Martin came in, the stories began to leak out: He called out the older players. He dismissed their years at Cal and declared that he, and the rest of that 2010 class, would make up for their failings, in not so many words. He never played a down for Cal.

That is not Robertson.


"I always told myself," Robertson said when he committed to Cal, "that I'd rather have a million-dollar business than a million-dollar contract in the NFL."

Back in a storage locker, somewhere in suburban Atlanta, Robertson has stacks of drawing pads, full of pencil drawings of landscapes. For his commitment ceremony, he painted a Cal-themed watercolor piece the night before his commitment. It took him an hour.

At the age of eight, Robertson used to sit out in the common area of wherever he and his older brother -- Carlos -- were living, or at a table, or out on the back porch, standing at an easel, looking at the world, and just draw.

Carlos has been Robertson's legal guardian. It's a title he took after his old defensive backs coach at Greenville High School, Roger Howard, -- also Demetris's P.E. teacher at George E. Washington Elementary -- told him that Demetris "had something special about him." He didn't want to see the then-eight-year old Robertson leave for Atlanta, where his mother would be the executive housekeeper for Quality Inn Hotels. At the time, Carlos was still in college at Fort Valley State in Macon, Ga.

"It was 12:30 or 1 a.m., and I remember his exact words: 'You did a lot for me as a player, so do something for me, as a person,'" Carlos Robertson said. "He said he saw something special in him. He didn't say what. I didn't ask him what. He just saw something special, and wanted me to take him under my wing. I'd do anything for coach Howard. He's a good guy, a smart guy. His word is the Bible. He saw something special, and I took him for his word."

Beyond his physical talents, Demetris has an inquisitive, endlessly curious mind.

He began to take an interest in architecture as a freshman at Savannah (Ga.) Christian Prep -- making his climb this week up the Sydney Harbor Bridge that much more exciting -- and took Advanced Placement Art as a senior. Now, he said, environmental design is his intended major.

"I wanted to be a chef at one point," Robertson said, glossing over his phases. "I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be an architect. I just like how uniquely things are built, put together, set up."

When he was eight or nine, Carlos remembered, he came home to find that Demetris had whipped up some species of casserole, with cheese, meat and noodles.

"I first noticed when he was younger, he'd go down to the kitchen and put things together," Carlos said. "He's just a kid, just wants something to eat, but I'd walk by, and take a taste, and go,' Man, this is really good!' or give a whistle. He doesn't talk about it a lot, but this casserole thing he made, it was an Italian-type deal, but he put his own stuff in it. He just made it, and it was delicious. The thing about it, I asked him what he called it, because it was something I'd never eaten. He said he was just out there experimenting.

"I'm mad at myself that I didn't get the recipe, but I don't think he even knew, himself, because he made it, it tasted good, so on to the next thing. He can prepare a meal like no other."

When he heard the Bears would be puttering by the renowned Sydney Opera House on a ferry this week in Australia, it was like somebody told him Santa Claus was real. Presented with a new piece of information about the world, Robertson's sun-narrowed eyes widen, his eyebrows arch, and his mouth drops open. 

As for the bridge, Robertson said he'll be paying attention to "everything."

"I'll probably look down," he said. "I've got to look down. I've got to see my fear, to face my fear. I've never done anything like that before. It'll be a unique experience."

The way Robertson goes about daily life is like a scene from Elf. There's a sense of wonder, an innocence about him, that belies his competitive zeal. Asked about his viral 63-inch box jump, he bashfully said, "I do it all the time," like somebody else talking about pouring a bowl of Cheerios. He didn't expect it to get the kind of attention that it did.

"It amazes me, every time that he does something, that it's almost like he has amnesia -- he didn't know he did it," said Carlos Robertson. "For him, it's just on to the next, on to the next."

Can anyone else on the team do anything like that? "No," laughed receiver Chad Hansen, shaking his head, on the first day of fall camp. "Nobody can."

"Coach Damon [Harrington] said it would blow up, but I didn't think nothing of it," Robertson said. He's hit 63 inches "four or five times" since his junior year of high school. He didn't do high jump, even though his brother, Carlos, "kept telling me to do it."

In fact, at the age of 13, after a coach noted that his bounce in a hurdles drill would translate well, he did try the high jump. Within two weeks, his leap of 5'-5.25" placed in the top five, nationally, at an AAU track meet.

When Robertson speaks, one-on-one, he gets close. Very close. It's like he has a secret he doesn't want anyone to hear. He doesn't hold back, per se, and he's not quite embarrassed; he just doesn't find himself all that remarkable.

"If he does something that's outstanding," Carlos said, "it's on to the next. That's just his train of thought. If he does something, he doesn't sit there and relish in it."


Robertson's elite speed on the track earned him the Georgia State High School Track Athlete of the Year award. It also led him to the USATF junior championships in June. At the start of camp, it caught the attention of one of his mentors.

San Francisco 49ers receiver Bryce Treggs -- who graduated this past May -- doesn't concede many things when it comes to football, least of all, his speed. When cornerback Darius Allensworth -- Treggs's implacable foe during one-on-one reps over the last two years -- texted the erstwhile Cal receiver to tell him that Robertson was faster, Treggs naturally took exception.

"I definitely don't think he's faster than me," Treggs said. "I'm still in the Bay Area, so I'm down to race sometime in the offseason, if I get out there. Who's the fastest who came in last year? They said Billy [McCrary] was faster than me. I showed him a lesson when he came in last year. I can't remember the last time I lost a race at Cal. It'll be interesting."

"I wouldn't want to do that, nope" Hansen -- known by teammates as White Lightning, for his 4.41-second 40 -- said of racing Robertson. "He's definitely the fastest kid on the team."

Probed on his 40 time, Robertson almost absentmindedly said his best 40 was clocked at 4.25 seconds, without a hint of boastfulness. He said it with all the pomp and circumstance of declaring that he had to go put his laundry in the dryer. 

Coaches have told Robertson to model himself after Hansen, and he's trying, but there's another receiver he watched first: Treggs.

"I talked to Treggs two days ago, and that was the first thing he said: 'I heard Demetris is faster than me,' and trust me, Treggs doesn't want to hear that," Peeler said. "That's not what he wants to hear."

"I've seen some of the practice tape, and seen how he's running by guys," Treggs said. "and he's definitely a guy that can stretch the field, similar to how I did last year, so I'm looking forward to watching that."

Robertson, too, has seen the practice tapes, of Treggs and the five other former Cal receivers from last season who are currently in NFL camps. He's watched all of last season's practices, "the good and the bad."

"I'm trying to learn from people's mistakes, trying to take things from Kenny [Lawler], a lot of things he did with his footwork," Robertson said. "I've got to learn that type of stuff. I know I'm a speedy guy, but once I learn how to work my feet, work the leverage of the defender, I'm good to go."

Lawler -- a seventh-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks -- wasn't the only receiver off of whom Robertson cribbed. During the summer, while Robertson was laid up with a hamstring strain suffered during the USATF Junior Championships 200m race, he sat and watched Treggs, live, at Memorial Stadium, readying for 49ers mini camps. "All of our receivers last year, the numbers speak for themselves; all of our receivers were very successful in the offense -- and he wanted to know what separated us, how we got to that point," Treggs said. "It was basically just putting in the work when nobody's looking, getting with Jared, throwing routes on Saturdays, on Sundays, when we don't have anything mandatory to do. That's what really separated us, because it made us that much better than everybody else, and made us that much closer as a unit."

So, whether it's being the last man on the field, or competing with quarterback Davis Webb for who turns the last lights out in the Simpson Center, Robertson works.

*****"I watch everybody," he said. "My favorite player is Odel [Beckham, Jr.]. I watched Antonio [Gates], Amari [Cooper], Corey Coleman, Jerry Rice -- everybody, anybody."

In place of hands-on coaching this summer, Robertson watched. He mimicked.

"I just watched highlights to learn," Robertson said. "Now, I'm on the field and I work my technique, but I'd never really learned technique."

He figured out the how -- or, at least, how the how was supposed to look -- but he didn't know they why, hence, his relationship with Treggs.

"The technique, how he ran his routes, how crisp he ran his routes -- anything, everything," said Robertson. "I talk to him all the time, on Instagram, texting. I get advice about a lot of things, just any time, any time I need to pick his brain."

Robertson "never really played receiver, naturally," in high school, he said. He rushed 107 times for 1,043 yards as a senior at Savannah Christian Prep, but he caught just 12 passes for 126 yards.

"Demetris, he came in super fast. Everyone knows he’s a great athlete, but he had receiver skills that needed to be refined, and he has done everything he’s needed to do," said Hansen. "He’s out there early, stays later than everybody else, always working on his craft."

The Wednesday before the start of fall camp, inside receiver Ray Hudson went into his favorite private film room at 6 p.m., to check out some tape. There, in his spot, was Robertson.

"I was like, 'Ah, come on.' So, I go in there, and I start watching film, and he's learning the plays he wants to have," Hudson said. "I asked him about it. I said, 'You're watching film and no one else is in here. What are you doing?' He said, 'I don't want to have to think about the route before. I don't want to question if I know what route it is. I want to have the confidence to play, so I can be me and do what I want, and I can have that ability to run confidently and not question every step.' That's huge. That's a big aspect of the game. We don't really see that out of freshmen, or guys who are coming in, new."

Robertson was watching practices from spring, from last fall, from the last season. After the very first padded practice of fall camp, Peeler walked by another film room. There was Robertson, in full pads -- sans cleats, sans shower -- watching film.

"We had to tell him, 'Dude, take a shower, and then you can come back,'" Peeler said. "Same thing when it was Summer Bridge. First night he gets here, and it's a three-hour time difference for that kid -- it's 1 a.m. his time -- and he was up here watching film on his own. He knew he had missed spring practice, and what he lacked in spring practice, he was going to make up in film and study. Watching old film, he's able to watch guys like Treggs and Kenny and Trevor [Davis] and Maurice [Harris] and Stephen [Anderson] and all those guys. I think he's picked up a lot of stuff from them."

On an average day in fall camp, Robertson would leave the football facility at 10 p.m. When he gets home, he watches even more film.

"My teammates always crack jokes about me: 'There's D in the room watching film. He doesn't want to go out partying,' stuff like that," Robertson said.

That -- more than his speed -- is what struck Treggs, when they first met. About a week or two before the Washington State game last season, Treggs and Robertson connected, ahead of Robertson's visit to Berkeley.

"He was picking my brain and asking me all types of questions about what the tutoring situation is like, what our schedules are like," Treggs said. "He was really interested in our program. Normally, you get a kid who's asking the wrong things, like, 'How are the parties? What do the girls look like?' -- stuff like that. Demetris wasn't like that, at all."

Even after a party at Treggs's place following a win over the Cougars on Robertson's official visit, there was only one thing Robertson wanted to talk about.

"Afterwards, he was just kicking it at my house, and we just talked about ball," Treggs said. "He was focused on ball and school. I knew from that moment that he was going to be a great player."


There was no mistaking who Robertson was on the first day of fall camp. He was the guy running by everyone. He was the guy, Webb said, every quarterback tested their arms against. There was a competition to see who could out-throw Robertson's speed. They only managed to do it when he slowed down.

"I try to figure them out, see how far they can throw it, so now, I just go as hard as I can," he said.

Robertson was also raw. His hands and arms were stiff. His routes blurry and indistinct. His cuts were sudden, but at times seemingly random. Balls would bounce off his hands, zip through his hands, or go over the wrong shoulder. With every single rep, though, he learned. If he got leveraged out of his break on one rep, he'd be more physical and demanding on the next. If a hand got in his face on one rep, he leaped to make the catch on the next. If he didn't look the ball into his hands on a deep route up the seam, the next time he ran that route, he tracked the ball in for a touchdown over his shoulder.

He doesn't make the same mistake twice. 

“I don’t see it very often," said offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.   

“It’s day-to-day, really, rep-to-rep," Spavital said of Robertson's improvement. "Outstanding. He’s still young, but he’s a very dynamic kid, and I think that the more reps he gets, he’s going to be better overall. It’s going to be fun to watch him progress throughout this entire season, because you’re going to throw him in, and live with some of the mistakes that he makes, but I bet you he does some good things, too.”

"Every day," Peeler said, "it's a step forward."

The first time he caught a kickoff in fall camp, he slipped through the coverage like a water moccasin through a cypress swamp, and took it back 50 yards. He would have taken it further, had the play not been whistled dead. When asked about it, he paws at the ground, eyes down, and then, in the blink of an eye, his neck snaps up, and he smiles with his whole body, tittering, like he's watching Saturday morning cartoons. "I know, right?" he laughed, as if he, too, can't believe it.

"He only knows one speed," Peeler said. "We're having to tell him on punts, having to tell him on walkthrough, to slow down, because everything he does is just full-speed. It's crazy. We're doing a ball security drill the other day, trying to strip the ball, and I thought he was about to rip Logan Gamble's head off, trying to get the ball out. I had to chill him out. He only knows one speed. He's such a great kid, and he has such a high ceiling, with his athleticism, that by Australia, I mean, it's going to be, for me, I just think the kid is going to be a phenomenal player."

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