More so than ever before in the last several seasons, the Jacksonville Jaguars have one particular trait that is defining the running back room: opportunity.
When former No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette was released last Monday, there was a void created at the running back position that would not easily be filled. Originally, Ryquell Armstead, Devine Ozigbo, Chris Thompson and undrafted rookie James Robinson were set to handle the running game duties without Fournette, but that has changed a bit as well.
Last week, Armstead was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list for the second time since Aug. 1. His return to the field is indefinite, with head coach Doug Marrone saying Monday that he would "be out a while." Meanwhile, Ozigbo was placed on the team's Reserve/Injured list today with a hamstring injury, sidelining him for at least three games.
That leaves Robinson and Thompson, along with recently-signed running back Dare Ogunbowale, as the lone active members of Jacksonville's running back room. But with Thompson serving as a third-down back, and with Ogunbowale joining the team just days before Week 1, it is now going to be up to Robinson to lead the running game.
“He’s a no-nonsense guy, he really is. I try to get under his skin a little bit. I ask him if he’s nervous every day. He’s a very poised individual, no nonsense," Jaguars offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said about Robinson on Wednesday.
"He’s ready to go. We’ll see when Sunday hits, the first time we give him the ball, the first time there’s a third-and-1 or we have to get a yard. We’ll see how he does, but we have every indication that we’ve seen in training camp that he can handle it."
Robinson has shown the ability to carry rushing attacks before, though never at the NFL level. He is the all-time Illinois High School Association leading rusher (9,045 yards) and the second all-time Illinois State leading rusher (4,444 yards), showing he has an elite record of production and, evidently, the traits the Jaguars are looking for in their lead back this season.
"He can handle the workload. He’s tough. He’s strong. He’s got great vision. He can explode through holes. We’ve been impressed with him," Gruden said.
"Unfortunately, we haven’t had the preseason games to really look at him in live situations. We’ve had a couple in practice but they’re still not the same, but I feel very confident in his demeanor and his approach to the game that he will be ready.”
When Robinson signed with the Jaguars, it is fair to say nobody projected him as the team's top running back by Week 1. Not only was there the looming presence of Fournette, but Armstead and Ozigbo were two backs the Jaguars were high on all offseason.
But Robinson impressed all throughout camp with his vision, pass blocking and agility for his size. He has also become the de facto last man standing among the team's running backs, leading to the Jaguars now entrusting him with their running game for the first part of the season.
And while the Jaguars knew when they signed Robinson that he was a supremely productive college running back, they didn't know about some of the other traits he would bring to the field -- traits that helped launch him to the top of the depth chart.
"My biggest surprise with him is his ability to catch the ball and block. He’s a great blocker; he has great hands. He’s picked up everything extremely well," Gruden said.
"[Running Backs] Coach Robiskie’s done an outstanding job with him, but James has really taken it to a level for a rookie free agent, not getting the reps early in camp, to really dominate in the reps that he did get and really turning our heads and that’s the key to a rookie free agent making the team. Evolving into a starter is almost impossible without any preseason games, but he made us all feel very comfortable about it with his ability to do the right thing and then when he does have the ball, he makes something happen.”