When it comes to the NFL, sometimes all a player needs is a small opportunity. One chance to prove they not only belong but that they are difference-makers. One chance to make a lasting impression.
For Jacksonville Jaguars running back James Robinson, that one opportunity came 13 days before the team's Sept. 13 season opener vs. the Indianapolis Colts. And so far Robinson has held onto the opportunity and has run with it.
In many ways, the consensus reaction when the Jaguars released running back Leonard Fournette fewer than two weeks before the start of the season was shock. To most people, the response when the Jaguars placed Robinson, an undrafted rookie out of Illinois State, as the top running back on the depth chart was one of either surprise, amusement or a mixture of the two.
"Who is this guy?" was a popular question for most throughout the football world. Well, except for those in Rockford, Ill., a town full of people who have grown accustomed to seeing Robinson find success every time he steps on a field.
"This was a big shock for people that, you know, James made it to the NFL. It was a big shock for people that James is a starting running back. But, you know, you can ask anyone that coached James or saw James play when he was in high school ... we knew this was a great possibility for James," Henry Robison, a former coach on Robinson's high school staff at Rockford Lutheran High School, told JaguarReport.
"He was motivated to do it. He wanted to get it done, and he found a way to do it.
Robison is now the athletic director at Rockford Lutheran after spending the last two seasons of Robinson's prolific high school career with the former high school star as a member of the defensive staff. For two years he saw the player Jaguars fans see today.
But it was before Robinson ever set Illinois high school sports records that the talented runner landed on the radar of Illinois State and head coach Brock Spack.
Spack told JaguarReport that the college offered Robinson a scholarship after the school saw him perform in a camp as a freshman, which is a testament to how impressive Robinson was at such a young age.
"We don't do that very often, and he has to be a pretty special guy," Spack said.
"He earned it all. He's a really hard worker. He was a talented player; as soon as he stepped on our campus, we knew he was gonna be a really good player."
For Robinson to earn an offer at a camp as a freshman is surprising on the surface but less surprising when you talk to those who have coached the young and talented running back.
Simply put, Robinson put on shows every time he and Rockford Lutheran stepped into a camp according to his former high school head coach Bruce Bazsali. Bazsali recalled one particular camp the team attended where Robinson went against an All-State senior linebacker in individual drills.
"And everybody is telling me 'Oh, now James has done well but he won't do too good against this kid.' And I said well, I wouldn't be too sure," Bazsali said.
On the first rep, Robinson slipped and the win went to the linebacker. For a fleeting moment it had appeared as if Rockford Lutheran's Superman had been grounded.
But Bazsali knew Robinson well enough to know this wasn't going to be the case. Not with this running back.
"All that did was make James mad. I said, he won't show that he's mad, but you watch how he reacts to it. And he planted the guy on his back. I mean, that is just the way he is," Bazsali said.
During his Rockford Lutheran career, Robinson set the Illinois High School Association all-time rushing record with 9,045 yards and 158 rushing touchdowns in his career. Robinson also holds the state record for most career points scored with 948, and his 158 touchdowns tie for fourth on the National Federation of State High School Association's all-time list.
Robinson became a key part of the school's offense, helping lead them to an 11-1 record and a playoff appearance in his senior season. And while his numbers were clearly gaudy, the most amazing thing about them is the fact that they are not even as spectacular as they potentially could have been.
"His stats are incredible, and it's even more incredible when you find that we were blowing teams out by 40 points nearly every game when they were here. And he wouldn't play the second half of a lot of football games, because we'd be up so much," Robison said.
"We were a great football team during those times and James was a big reason for that, as well as a lot of guys who were quality football players around him."
Once Robinson's high school career ended, he had a resume that should have landed him a spot in any backfield he wanted. But the prolific back was ranked as just a two-star player by most scouting services and an offer he had received from the University of Iowa ended up not coming to fruition.
Instead of Robinson landing with a Big 10 program like Spack always worried he would, he stayed the course and committed to Illinois State, the first school that truly believed and bought into him. And in return, Illinois State and Spack got a running back with plenty of production and plenty of potential.
"James was a year ahead in school," Spack explained. "He never redshirted, you know, so he's a very young player still. And that is what is so exciting about his upside. I think that he has still got a huge upside. He is fairly young for what he's accomplished already."
Robinson heading to Illinois State would end up becoming a game-changer for the Redbirds' program. As a senior, he rushed for 1,899 yards and 18 touchdowns, earning a spot on as a consensus first-team FCS All-American. He would also make first-team all-conference in three of his four seasons.
Just as Robinson dominated in high school, and just as he is displaying in the NFL with the Jaguars, he found success with Illinois State. He became the team's starting running back as a sophomore, and these numbers from Illinois State's athletic department's website just shows how productive and impactful he was.
- "Finished illustrious career ranked No. 2 in the ISU record books in rushing yards (4,444), rushing touchdowns (44), all-purpose yards (5,218), and total touchdowns scored (46)."
- "[Robinson] is third in total points scored (276) ... ranks fourth in average yards per rush (5.58), rush yards per game (96.6) and all-purpose yards per game (113.4)."
"He's very quiet, you know, and he's unassuming, he goes about his business and he is very professional. He is a hard worker and is just a really good kid. Never been an issue here and [we] really enjoyed having him here. I wish we still had him. He is a fabulous player," Spack said.
"You know, for what he lacks in speed, he has such good acceleration and burst, and he catches the ball really well. He has good ball skills. He even caught punts here when he was younger."
Unfortunately for Robinson, the timing of his entrance into the NFL hurt his chances to be drafted. Robinson finished his college career and began to prepare for the 2020 NFL Draft as the COVID-19 pandemic began, which is perhaps a reason Robinson went undrafted despite a terrific college and high school career.
Robinson attended the NFL Scouting Combine but a 4.64 40-yard dash likely hurt his stock. And due to the pandemic, Robinson was unable to get a true re-do due to the cancellation of the vast majority of pro days, which Spack thinks could have potentially played a role in him going undrafted.
Following the draft, Robinson said just two teams made contact with him: the Jaguars and the San Francisco 49ers. Robinson would of course end up with Jacksonville, and a few months later his opportunity came sooner than anyone ever thought it would.
"He was a special guy walking through the door. ... Nothing James has done has been surprising to me," Spack said.
"I think Jacksonville was a good stop for him even though I am sure he was disappointed he didn't get drafted. But that was a really good spot for him."
Since landing with the Jaguars, Robinson has done nothing but impress, just as he did at Rockford and at Illinois State. Robinson was among the team's most impressive players throughout training camp which instilled enough confidence in the coaching staff to entrust him with the lead back role as a rookie.
Through three games, Robinson has rushed 43 times for 210 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. He has also caught 10 passes for 129 yards (12.9 yards per catch), including six in a Week 3 loss on Thursday Night Football, a game in which he was Jacksonville's leading receiver. He has also already established himself as an effective pass protector despite not having any preseason games to get used to NFL blitz pickups.
"I think if you watched him on tape against Miami, he’s probably, arguably, the best player on the team out there on offense. He was excellent in the passing game. He was great in protection. Obviously running the football, he had two touchdowns and some nice hits," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said on Wednesday.
"So he’s been everything we hoped he would be, but playing in the National Football League, it’s about consistency and doing it week in and week out. But obviously, for us to be good, he has to have big production, both in the running game, in protection, and in the pass game. He’s everything we thought he might be, but he has to continue to keep it up because we are going to rely on him in a big way moving forward.”
Entering Week 4, Robinson is second among all rookies in scrimmage yards. For context, 65 running backs, wide receivers and tight ends were all drafted in 2020. So far, only one of them has produced more yardage than Robinson. Robinson ranks fourth overall in the AFC in scrimmage yards (339) and is the only undrafted player in NFL history to post at least 300 scrimmage yards and multiple touchdowns through three career games.
According to the Jaguars, his 339 scrimmage yards are the most ever by an undrafted player through three career games and he has joined Kareem Hunt as the only players over the last 10 seasons to gain at least 300 scrimmage yards and score at least three rushing TDs in their first three career games.
If Robinson was a first-round pick, the Jaguars would be happy with this kind of production. But to get it out of an undrafted rookie who months prior was an unknown to nearly everyone out of the state of Illinois is something rare.
"I think he’s a guy that—he can do everything, I mean, he can be a three-down back, he can protect, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, obviously he can run the football," head coach Doug Marrone said about Robinson this week.
He can do everything. To get that kind of praise from his head coach three weeks into his NFL career is as astonishing as it is surprising to those who didn't know about his story before the NFL.
But for those who did know Robinson and the kind of person and player he was, it is far from a surprise. Instead it is just as they have always seen him.
"Are you kidding me? I'm not surprised in the least," Bazsali said with a laugh.
"All he needs is to get in the door. And once he got in that door, that's all he needed to do to prove it."
Robinson was the quiet leader of Rockford Lutheran's offense, just as he is quietly setting an example for undrafted rookies all throughout the league today and tomorrow. He has done it his way—the same way he did in front of Bazsali, Robison, Spack and so many others.
Why has he had this success at each stop, and why is there so much confidence it will continue? Bazsali likely put it the best way anyone can.
"Because he gives everything he has got on every play. Everything he's got on every play."
Underrated and unnoticed but fiery, productive and strong-willed. That is who Robinson has always been, and that is why there are whole communities in Illinois tuning into Jaguars games every Sunday today.
"He means a lot to our program, but I know he means a lot to the people back in Rockford," Spack said, putting it as well as it could be.