SPARTANBURG -- Not many fourth-round picks have it made in their rookie training camps, but there's nothing but good news so far for Carolina rookie Ryne Robinson.
After all, the Panthers were last in the league at the thing he does, so he can't possibly make them worse. Plus, a wide receiver with a similar pedigree to his own has gone from a niche player to a perennial Pro Bowler here, so there's plenty of motivation and a solid role model.
Because of those factors, and his own skills, Robinson's become perhaps the rookie making himself known this camp.
"I'm anxious to watch him play," coach John Fox said. "He's got suddenness, he's got excellent hands, and it's going to be interesting to see what he looks like in an NFL game on Saturday night. But I really like what we see."
The Panthers were intent on improving their horrid return game when they chose Robinson in April. And though he's slotted as their return specialist for now, that's the same job the previous administration once gave Steve Smith, which gives Robinson reason to smile.
The rookie said he hasn't asked Smith too much about returning punts and kicks, since that's been somewhat of a sore spot for Smith since he came here. Smith always considered himself a receiver first who happened to return, and has been willing but not exactly enthusiastic about being asked to fill in the last few years.
"I try not to bring it up around him because I know he still has got that chip on his shoulder about it," Robinson said. "I think his mentality speaks for itself. I'm just trying to model myself after it, not to be so chipper at everyone else, just take it on and know there's light at the end of the tunnel."
Both of them stand 5-foot-9, though Smith has a denser frame than the skinny-legged Robinson. And while Smith was a standout at Utah for two years, Robinson actually put up bigger numbers in college, leaving Miami (Ohio) with 5,656 all-purpose yards and seven punt return touchdowns, one short of the NCAA record.
So to augment that talent, the veteran receiver's been offering up his wisdom to the rookie, and there are those in the organization who see the potential for another mid-round steal.
"I'm still learning stuff day by day from Steve. He's just showing me little stuff that's helping me progress as a receiver," Robinson said. "Basically, his mentality in being more aggressive as a receiver, being the attacker as opposed to the prey and sitting back and letting the DB dictate what goes on."
Robinson's also aware that with Smith, holdovers Keary Colbert and Drew Carter and second-round pick Dwayne Jarrett, the chances he gets on offense might be limited. That doesn't mean his impact here will be.
Last season, Carolina's best kick returner was sluggish running back Nick Goings, who'd guarantee you 20 yards but was no threat to go 90. The punt returns were abysmal, with cornerback Chris Gamble showing none of the flair for it he had at Ohio State. The Panthers were 32nd in both categories for a reason.
"I think it was something we knew we needed to do," special teams coach Danny Crossman said of drafting Robinson. "A lot of it last year was because of other circumstances, but we were never really able to make the kind of move you needed to make.
"We knew we needed to get someone in there to be that guy, and we think we found him."
Robinson's picked up on some of Smith's swagger as well, saying his goal was "at least two or three punt returns for touchdowns and hopefully some kickoffs for touchdowns, too."
"Just to be better than they were last year," he continued, offering the understatement of the day.
Crossman said that as much as he liked Robinson's explosive acceleration, the rookie is learning the nuances of the return game quickly, and has shown a knack for finding small seams and popping through them quickly.
"The biggest thing with him is he's got great hand-eye coordination," Crossman said. "It's effortless for him to catch the football. And he's got great eyes when he does catch it, where he's able to see a lot of things happening while the ball's in the air, and peripherally see what's happening with the coverage lanes."
While there's some degree of mystery regarding his ability on kickoffs, he doesn't lack for confidence that he can do it, and much more in time.
"I think I'll play a little more receiver than anyone expects, right off," Robinson said. "I have guys that are teaching me a lot of stuff in a short amount of time, and I think I'm adjusting to it.
"I'm not settling with it, just as I think you all know Steve Smith wouldn't settle with that. I have the same mentality with him. Right now this is my role. I'm the punt returner and kick returner and receiver, and eventually I'll move into a more stable spot in the offense."