Updated April 27, 20020: Illinois State Redbird football players James Robinson and Luther Kirk were signed as undrafted free agents by the Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys, respectively.
James Robinson stood at his own 30-yard line and looked across at a defense that had nine players stacking the line of scrimmage.
It was third down-and-1 with 8 minutes, 8 seconds remaining of the East-West Shrine Bowl on January 18 in St. Petersburg, Florida. The game showcases some of the top college football seniors in the country.
The ball was snapped, and Robinson methodically took the handoff and read the defense, scanning for a hole in the line of scrimmage. He found one on the left side and suddenly shot through the gap like a cannon. From there, it was off to the races. He ran untouched for 63 yards, showing off his speed en route to the end zone, giving the West the lead.
James Robinson with ANOTHER big run 🏃♂️💨
The West take back the lead 🏈
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) January 18, 2020
Robinson put on a clinic in a game featuring players from Power Five programs, rushing for 135 yards on just eight carries. That kind of performance is something Illinois State fans got used to watching for four years. He racked up 4,444 rushing yards and 44 rushing touchdowns, both ranking second in Illinois State history. On that January afternoon, the rest of the football world, including more than 300 pro scouts, got a glimpse of the former Redbird who hopes to hear his name called at the NFL Draft on April 23.
While he may have caught other’s attention with that performance in the Shrine Bowl, Robinson expected that out of himself. He’s always held himself to a high standard, and it was business as usual despite being on the field with players from powerhouses such as Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, and USC.
“I knew what I could do,” Robinson said. “I just had to go do it.”
That’s the exact mindset he carried during his historic run with the Redbirds. After most of his touchdown runs, he was seen casually flipping the ball to the referee and jogging back to the sidelines already plotting his next visit to the end zone. Robinson, from Rockford Lutheran High School, lets his play on the field do all his self-promotion.
No fanfare. Just results.
“Sometimes he’s misunderstood because he’s so quiet,” Redbird head coach Brock Spack said at a December press conference at the Kaufman Football Building.
There’s no mistaking Robinson’s level of production and dedication to the game. He has studied film of some of the game’s greats and has tried to take something from each of them. Robinson often spends his free time searching YouTube of his favorite backs, and every week he tries to pick a new one. Robinson said he has taken the most from former Seattle Seahawk Marshawn Lynch, who spent his 11-year career absorbing contact and running with power with an innate ability to fight forward for an extra yard or two. He’s also studied New York Jets running back Le’Veon Bell and how he uses patience behind the line of scrimmage to read the defense. Robinson displayed that during his 63-yard dash in the Shrine Bowl.
He believes his hybrid style of power and patience, not to mention his ability to catch passes out of the backfield, will translate to the NFL.
Experts have praised his decision-making and vision and have been complimentary of his work and constant improvement at Illinois State. Last fall, Robinson saved his best work for last and had 601 rushing yards on 102 carries in the Redbirds three FCS playoff games. He served as the focal point of an offense that was down two quarterbacks due to injury.
“When I watch some games from my freshman year to junior and senior year, I can tell the way I play and look is a lot different,” Robinson said.
Robinson’s name has appeared in many projections with most analysts and scouts having him taken somewhere between the fifth and seventh rounds.
“Illinois State running back James Robinson has been a workhorse for the Redbirds, and he brings several NFL qualities to the table that gives him a chance at the next level,” wrote The Draft Network’s Tom Marino. “His vision and anticipation for space is impressive, and his running style is nuanced.”
Robinson, who is the all-time leading prep rusher in Illinois history with 9,045 career yards, moved to Florida to train after the fall semester ended at Illinois State. He had a solid showing at the NFL Combine in late February, and he has been working extensively on keeping his body in shape as coronavirus (COVID-19) has forced him, and the rest of the country, into quarantine. Robinson said he bought some cones to work on his lateral quickness and has utilized his bench press at home.
The NFL Draft will be virtual. The hoopla that comes with it—be it the people in the audience reacting to their team’s pick, the flashy suits, or the press conferences in a player’s new city the next morning—will be absent. The focus will be more on what a player can do between the white lines, which bodes perfectly for Robinson. He’s always been able to generate noise from quietness.
Editor’s note: Illinois State safety Luther Kirk was named the defensive MVP of the Shrine Bowl after recording an interception and two tackles in the game. Kirk had an All-American senior season with the Redbirds in 2019 and will also look to make an NFL roster this weekend.