Khiry Robinson’s hard work paying off for Saints

After picking up 102 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries over two playoff games at the end of an attention-grabbing rookie year last season, Saints running back Khiry Robinson treated himself to a few days off with his family.

But then about three days passed, and Robinson felt he was out of place.

“I felt like, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” the 24-year-old Robinson said. “I’ve got to get back on the grind.’ ”

So Robinson canceled his R&R and instead killed time with twice-daily workouts — one more a day than when he was preparing for a rookie NFL campaign in which he helped the Saints win 12 of 18 games. He ran more hills and spent more time exercising under water than was typical to boost his stamina and speed.

And he limited his reading material to the Saints playbook because he wants to be more than a running back who simply takes handoffs and steams straight ahead.

“Last year,” Robinson said, “I was basically just running, hoping I went the right way.”

By the time the Saints’ third day of voluntary organized team activities wrapped up Thursday afternoon, it was apparent to Robinson’s coach and quarterback that the young running back’s efforts were paying off. And, in their view, if he keeps it up, there’s no reason he can’t soon become what he aspires to.

Signed as an unheralded, undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M, Robinson won over Saints fans after averaging more than 4 yards a carry, gaining 224 yards and punching in a touchdown on 54 rushes over 10 regular-season games in 2013. Yet it was in the postseason that Robinson made many of his team’s faithful wonder whether they had a special one in their midst.

In a wildcard showdown at Philadelphia, Robinson was handed the ball three times in the last 4:07 of the game. He picked up 22 yards of a clock-draining, 34-yard drive that set up a last-second field goal which secured the Saints the first true road playoff victory of their history.

A week later, he barreled in for a 1-yard TD that momentarily cut into what had been a 16-0, fourth-quarter deficit in the Saints’ unsuccessful bid to deny Seattle the Super Bowl it went on to win in February.

Robinson allowed that he was “a whole lot better” now than at the beginning of his rookie year when he spoke to reporters at the end of practice Thursday, the first OTA opened to the media. However, that’s well short of being “a star or anything like that,” which explains his intense offseason routine.

“I can’t get comfortable,” Robinson said. “So my mind is just to keep working until I get where I’m supposed to be.”

Where Robinson’s supposed to be could be in a role that’s a lot more complex than what it was last season, quarterback Drew Brees said.

“Toward the end of the year, it was just, ‘Pound the football, pound the football, pound the football,’ ” Brees remarked. “His skill set can go way beyond that.”

Which is why Brees, coach Sean Payton and the rest of Robinson’s mentors on the Saints offense have been preaching that he master the passing game’s protection schemes.

They’ve tasked Robinson with focusing on catching throws out the backfield — he hauled in a lone one as a rookie (for 13 yards in the playoff defeat at Seattle). And he shouldn’t mind learning precisely how deep to run routes, among other assignments.

“Just (for) it to become second-nature so that it’s not so much thinking — it’s just, ‘Hey, I know what I’m doing,’ ” Brees said. “Now, I’m going to react and play ball and use the instincts that God gave me.”

It’s all off to a good start so far this offseason, Payton said.

“He is someone obviously that has more confidence now,” Payton said in response to a question about Robinson. “A year under his belt, the overall understanding of all the things he needs to do at the running back position is a lot better.

“The running ... is something that would be the easier part. The protections and the different things that go into the (blitz) pickups are more challenging. He is a lot further along.”

Robinson, like virtually everyone else in New Orleans, realizes more snaps are probably coming his way in 2014. Of the four running backs Robinson split the load with last year, only Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Travaris Cadet remain — Darren Sproles, oft-utilized in the screen game, was traded to Philadelphia for a draft pick.

Robinson, though, declined to discuss how big of a chance that represents for him to leave his mark in Saints lore.

“There were opportunities before” Sproles left, Robinson said. “I can’t worry about ... who’s gone, who’s here now.

“My main focus is just to do what I’m supposed to, and everything else will fall in place.”

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Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter @RVargasAdvocate. For more coverage of Saints football, follow our Black and Gold blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/blackandgold/