ROCKFORD — This is not the way former Lutheran and Illinois State University star running back James Robinson thought he was going to prepare himself for the upcoming NFL draft — locked down in his Rockford home, and locked out of any pro day workouts that could have helped his draft stock.
But, he insists, he’s still ready, and confident that his name will be called.
“I’m kind of excited, for sure. It’s close, but it still seems so far away,” said Robinson, who became the IHSA’s all-time leading rusher at Lutheran. “I’ve had to adapt, a little bit, with all that’s going on. But it hasn’t affected my mindset.”
Robinson is expected to be among the first players drafted from a Football Champion Subdivision program. For players like him who aren’t from a high-profile FCS program, the lead-up to the draft is key.
The coronavirus pandemic has put everything on hold, with pro day workouts across the country canceled over the past month.
Nevertheless, the draft will go on from April 23 through 25. Robinson will be watching, and listening for his name to be called.
“They’re going ahead with it, so it is what it is. You have to deal with what you’ve got,” said Robinson, a two-time finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player among FCS teams. “There’s not much I can do now, but I’m pretty relaxed, and I think I’m where I need to be.”
Robinson left Lutheran with record-setting numbers (9,045 rushing yards and 158 touchdowns), and he nearly did the same at ISU. He was a first-team AP All-American last season, rushing for 1,917 yards and 18 TDs. He finished his Redbird career as the program’s No. 2 all-time rusher with 4,444 yards and 44 scores.
He attracted attention in the week of practice leading up to the East-West Shrine Bowl on Jan. 18, and played well the game itself.
“I just showed them what I have,” Robinson said. “I showed them my speed, and I showed them that I can do it at the next level.… I’ve worked hard my whole life, and I wasn’t surprised with what I was able to do.”
His Shrine Bowl-record, 63-yard touchdown burst up the middle was a nice way to showcase his breakaway speed, and he finished with 136 combined yards, rushing for 80 and grabbing two passes for another 56 more.
Just as the @nflnetwork crew is saying James Robinson doesn’t have breakaway speed he unleashes this 63 yard TD... the longest run in Shrine Game history pic.twitter.com/QUEIE6eU5Z— Bears Barroom (@BearsBarroom) January 18, 2020
That performance helped earn him an invitation to the NFL combine in Indianapolis, where he continued to raise eyebrows.
Although he wasn’t ecstatic about his 40-yard dash time (he was clocked at 4.64 at the combine, but his best is 4.55), he was strong in other areas. His 24 repetitions at 225 pounds in the bench press tied for third best among the running backs at the combine, and he was second among running backs with a 40-inch vertical leap.
“He’s ready,” said Brock Spack, the former Rockford East star who was Robinson’s head coach at Illinois State.
Bruce Bazsali, his coach at Lutheran, added: “All he needs is his shot.”
Next week, Robinson will watch from his living room in Rockford with his mother and stepfather, his two sisters and his grandparents, hoping to hear his name called as early as possible.
“That’s who I would want to be with for a big moment like this anyway,” Robinson said, before adding, “I hope it will be one of the biggest moments of my life.”
Jay Taft: 815-987-1384; email@example.com; @JayTaft
Top performers in the bench press among #NFLCombine running backs:
1) Scottie Phillips, @OleMissFB, 29 reps
2) Sewo Olonilua, @TCUFootball, 25
T-3) Benny LeMay, @CharlotteFTBL, 24
T-3) James Robinson, @RedbirdFB, 24