Craig Robertson almost never left the field when he played football for Stafford High School in suburban Houston.
He was a quarterback, running back and go-to wide receiver on third down. He also played defensive back and even served as a punter and place-kicker, too.
So which duty was his favorite?
“I liked having the ball in my hands really,” Robertson said.
Now Robertson is a linebacker for the Browns, and his preference hasn’t changed. His knack for being around the ball has helped him make two interceptions through four games and earn a prominent role as one of two linebackers used in the team’s nickel package. He has played 188-of-317 defensive snaps (59 percent) this season.
It’s quite a feat for someone who went undrafted out of the University of North Texas last year and didn’t even receive an invitation to an NFL training camp. The Browns signed Robertson to their practice squad on Dec. 19, 2011, and he has since become one of the team’s most remarkable success stories.
“A lot of people back home, they’re like, ‘Man, you’re in the NFL now,’ ” Robertson said. “It’s still unreal at times. I still think of it as a dream come true, and I cherish every day.”
Robertson was one of the team’s bright spots Thursday night in its 23-16 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The Browns (0-4) will likely continue to heavily rely on him Sunday, when they visit the New York Giants.
After Josh Cribbs was knocked out of the game by a vicious blow to the helmet that caused him to fumble during a punt return, the Ravens took possession at the Browns’ 40-yard line with 5:07 left in the first quarter. Five plays later, wide receiver Anquan Boldin ran a corner route into the end zone with cornerback Dimitri Patterson covering him. Robertson sprinted back toward Boldin, turned and intercepted a pass from quarterback Joe Flacco with 3:21 left in the opening quarter.
“Craig Robertson, the guy is finding a way to make a play,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “Cribbs gets knocked around, we lose the ball, they drive down, getting ready to score and we pick them off. It’s a big turnaround, and it’s a big play. It’s a credit to him because that’s not the first time he’s done that.”
Flacco had thrown 125 consecutive red-zone passes without an interception, but Robertson snapped the streak.
“We had a great, great call,” said Robertson, who’s set to make $390,000 this year and $480,000 in 2013 with the Browns. “I played the call, did my job and the ball came right to me. I saw [wide receiver Jacoby] Jones come in on a slant, so I knew something was coming outside. Flacco [hadn’t] thrown a red-zone interception in three years. It’s kind of cool to say I picked him off in the red zone.”
Robertson’s speed, athletic ability and awareness allowed him to make the play. Those attributes also have helped him earn the trust of his teammates and coaches. D’Qwell Jackson is the only Browns linebacker who has played more than Robertson this season.
“I’ve been impressed with just the fact that he’s been able to come in being a free agent and wasn’t given a chance, being out the whole year and coming back with confidence and just carrying himself like a professional during the summer leading up to training camp,” cornerback Dimitri Patterson said. “Every time he has been given an opportunity, he has shown that he deserves to be here. He’s definitely a diamond in the rough that was overlooked because he’s a legitimate, certified player.
“He’s been contributing on the nickel packages, and he’s been very productive on special teams. He’s one of our best special-teams players as well. I know that doesn’t get noticed. People don’t talk about that because what he does, it’s not gonna be any notoriety. But when we’re watching tape, he shows up a lot. He may not be making all the tackles, but he does a lot that influences tackles.”
Robertson, who has 23 tackles on defense and four on special teams, has embraced his role in the nickel. As a four-year letterman at North Texas, he compiled nine interceptions. His coverage skills have transferred well to the NFL.
“Coach always says, ‘Hey, you got a tough tight end. Focus in on him,’ ” Robertson said. “It’s like he’s telling me, ‘Hey, you go cover that tight end. Limit him to whatever you need to get your job done.’ I like the challenge. I don’t want him to say, ‘We’re gonna help you every play.’
“I love covering people. In high school, I played defensive back. In college, they used me the same way -- pick a guy out and go lock him down. Even playing linebacker, you can still do it, so I’ve always taken pride in it. To do that at this level, it’s exciting.”
It’s also exciting for the Browns to witness Robertson’s rapid development.
“He’s able to come in, pick it up and he doesn’t make many mistakes,” Patterson said. “You can’t overlook things like that. He’s just an overall good player with a bright future in this league.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.