Put him in front of a camera or a reporter's notebook and James Robinson is about as comfortable as the proverbial long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. But, put him in the backfield on a crucial yardage play and the Illinois State tailback is your man.
"Yeah, I’m way more comfortable on the field," admitted the senior from Rockford at last week's ISU media day.
Whether he likes it or not, Robinson is in the limelight. He's the featured back in arguably the nation's top conference. He was the Missouri Valley Football Conference's leading rusher last fall. He's been named to numerous first team All-American lists.
"People tell me about it on social media, but I don’t think of it all myself," Robinson said as he shrugged off the question as if he was shrugging off a would-be tackler.
What others think
If Robinson isn't one to talk about himself or his game, then it's time to elicit the thoughts of others.
"First of all, he’s a great kid. That’s what makes him who he is," said running backs coach Khenon Hall. "He’s very smart, very explosive, very fast. Just overall, a complete player. He can run, catch. He’s a very good blocker. That’s what makes James Robinson a great player.
"James is young for his age. He’s still 20 right now. For him, it’s the maturity of everything. How to prepare, how to work, his film study. He’s becoming more of a all-around, more mature gym rat for his preparation for the game."
Western Illinois linebacker Zach Glisan has played against Robinson annually in conference games.
"(Robinson has) a combination of speed and power," Glisan said. "In space he's jukey, but he also has the frame and the size to put his head down and get tough yards. That combination of being very tough in between the tackles and once he gets out being elusive (makes him a great back)."
Robinson was one of 25 players named to the watch list for the Walter Payton Award, annually given to the offensive player of the year in college football's Division I subdivision. The watch list included at least one player from all 13 FCS conferences and is updated periodically throughout the season. Robinson was a finalist for the 2018 Payton Award.
Fourteen of the last 15 Payton award winners have been quarterbacks (Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp won in 2015). The last running back to get the award was Colgate's Jamaal Branch in 2003.
Yet, national FCS media members give Robinson a solid chance to take home the trophy.
"James being a strong NFL prospect immediately gets attention among Payton Award candidates. I consider him to be one of the top five candidates entering the season. You have to love some of his biggest performances have come against top opponents," STATS FCS Senior Editor Craig Haley said in an e-mail. "Obviously, quarterbacks have gained a strong foothold with awards because of how football is played today. But keep in mind that nine of the first 17 Payton Award winners were running backs."
Sam Herder, Senior FCS Analyst/Editor for HERO Sports, agrees.
"While I think Robinson is the best running back and possibly best pro prospect in the FCS, he'll need to put up monster numbers...which Illinois State is probably going to be a more balanced team than putting the load on Robinson. A lot of voters look at stats, and QBs have those kind numbers that get votes," Herder said, "but I do think Robinson has a chance. He'll need to have a ton of big-time performances, and it'll help if Illinois State is a top team in the country by the regular season's end. If the Redbirds are ranked a Top 10 team and Robinson is consistently running for 150-200 yards a game, he has a shot to break the mold of QBs winning this award."
The Payton Award was first given out in 1987, and has watched past winners such as Steve McNair, Tony Romo, Brian Westbrook, John Friesz, Brian Finneran, Jimmy Garoppolo and Kupp move on to the NFL.
Josh Buchanan of draftscout.com ranks Robinson first on his 2020 Top 100 Small School Prospects rankings. Futhermore, the analyst places Robinson 11th among running backs of all levels.
Buchanan, who has honed his craft by working several college all-star games and covering the FCS for Phil Steele's annual magazine, projects Robinson as a third- or fourth-round NFL draft pick.
By the numbers
Robinson enters his senior season fifth on the ISU career rushing list with 2,545 yards and 26 rushing touchdowns. Though he won't catch all-time leader Marshaun Coprich (5,196 yards), Robinson has a decent shot to finish at No. 2 on the Redbird leaderboard.
Listed at 5-foot-10 and 220 pounds, Robinson earned All-Missouri Valley Football Conference First-Team honors for the second-straight year a season ago. Robinson led the league with 1,290 rushing yards and tied for second in the league with 12 rushing touchdowns during the regular season.
He averaged 117.3 yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry and posted a pair of 200-plus yard rushing performances. Robinson recorded six 100-plus yard rushing efforts and scored multiple touchdowns in four contests throughout the season. He was named MVFC Offensive Player of the Week, after rushing for a career-best 256 yards and two touchdowns in the season finale against Youngstown State and ran for 202 yards and a score against Southern Illinois.
Moreover, Robinson showed his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield last season. He caught 21 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown last season, up from nine receptions for 75 yards in 2017.
"I saw James today make a great block on one of our best players on defense, I won't tell you who was was, but a real physical player and James put him on his knees," ISU head coach Brock Spack said last week. "It was impressive."
The final word (for now)
What does Robinson feel he has improved in his time at ISU?
"Being more patient. Getting faster. Learning how to take care of my body," said Robinson as he looked down at the Hancock Stadium turf.
Perhaps that's fitting since that's where Robinson's actions speak volumes.