2020 NFL Draft Preview: James Robinson, RB, Illinois State

2020 NFL Draft Preview: James Robinson, RB, Illinois State
Illinois State running back James Robinson will likely become the fifth Redbird drafted by an NFL team under head coach Brock Spack (Photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

James Robinson left a legacy for both the Illinois State and the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The next question being pondered is the mark the Rockford native leaves in pro football.

From all indications, Robinson will become the fifth Redbird drafted under head coach Brock Spack, who was hired by ISU in 2009.

Robinson not only impressed NFL personnel last fall, but also through two rounds of the FCS playoffs, the East-West Shrine Bowl and the NFL Combine.

Robinson left the ISU program No. 2 in rushing yards (4,462), rushing touchdowns (44), all-purpose yards (5,236) and total touchdowns scored (46).

During January's East-West Shrine Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., Robinson rushed for 80 yards on seven carries and caught two passes for 56 yards. Robinson produced two highlight plays — a 46-yard catch and run off a screen pass and a game-record 63-yard touchdown burst.

Robinson, a Rockford Lutheran High School graduate and the all-time leading rusher in Illinois prep history, measured at 5-foot-9 and 220 pounds at February's NFL Scouting Combine. He also impressed pro personnel in Indianapolis with 24 reps on the bench press, a 125-inch broad jump, a 7.03 3-cone drill and 40 inches in the vertical jump. He ran a 4.64 40-yard dash.

Up next is the NFL Draft, which runs April 23-25.

What the experts say

Dane Brugler is the national NFL writer for The Athletic, covering the upcoming draft. He previously covered the annual event for NFL Draft Scout and CBS Sports.  Brugler rates Robinson as 13th best running back and grades him as a fourth-fifth rounder.

Brugler lists Robinson's strengths as his quickness "out of the chute, accelerating quickly through holes . . . drives his legs at contact and won't allow arm tackles to slow him down . . . excellent decision-maker in the backfield, quickly scanning and reacting . . . instinctive pacing to set up his moves . . . able to drop his hips and move laterally to shake defenders . . . attitude runner and his NFL-level toughness in his blocking . . . praised by his coaches for his competitive mentality for all four quarters . . . above-average production at the college level, often putting the team on his back."

Brugler lists Robinson's weakness as "average long-speed and lacks a home run element . . . loses foot races to the corners . . . shows tightness in his hips, limiting his wiggle or ability to patch together moves . . . inconsistent pad level and needs to better throw his shoulder into contact . . . must improve his reliability on third down, including his routes and ball skills . . . worn down tread with 855 offensive touches in college . . . didn't play against top competition each week, facing only two FBS opponents in his career (rushed for only 16 yards on 13 carries against Northern Illinois in 2019)."

James Robinson (25) and Luther Kirk (34) both performed well in Saturday's East-West Shrine Bowl. (Twitter photon)

James Robinson (25) and Luther Kirk (34) both performed well in Saturday's East-West Shrine Bowl. (Twitter photon)

Brugler's summary states, "Overall, Robinson is a proven workhorse who consistently picks up positive yardage with his vision and determination, although his quicker-than-fast run style could be an issue vs. NFL-level speed."

Dan Schmelzer of Fansided was impressed by Robinson's numbers, but stated "it is much more than that. It does not take long while watching Robinson to come away impressed with his game and how he can translate to the next level.

"Robinson is not the most explosive running back in the 2020 NFL draft class, but his overall skill-set certainly makes him such an intriguing prospect. He has incredible ball carrier vision and the quickness to get to the hole once it opens up. His burst is average at best, but Robinson has impressive short-area quickness that helps make him elusive in the open field."

Schmelzer further wrote, "Robinson is not only quick, but he is also powerful at the point of attack. He does a great job of keeping his feet moving and picking up extra yards after the first contact and has fantastic natural contact balance. Robinson has a knack for keeping his feet throughout contact and that kind of skill can be incredibly valuable at the next level.

"There are going to be questions about his level of college competition, but Robinson’s combination of vision, quickness, power and balance is going catch the attention of NFL scouts. The 2020 NFL Draft is loaded with talent and depth, but Robinson certainly has the ability to make his mark at the next level. If the middle rounds roll around and you need a running back, look no further than James Robinson."

Longtime ProFootballWeekly.com editor Hub Arkush ranked Robinson as his 20th-best running back available in the draft.

Neither Mel Kiper, Jr. nor Todd McShay has Robinson in their top 10 running backs for the draft.

What the coaches say

Spack told the Rockford Register Star following the East-West Shrine Bowl: "I get asked a lot: ‘How fast is he?’ Well, he’s as explosive as they come, and he can stop and start, change directions, do that kind of thing, as good as any of them out there . . . I’ve taken lots of calls — oh, lots of calls. Every single NFL team has been here (watching practices or games) — the Bears the most."

Spack added that he isn’t concerned about Robinson’s interpersonal skills. “He’s shy and introverted around adults,” Spack told the Rockford newspaper. The ISU head coach saw Robinson as going in the “third- or fourth-round area.”

Khenon Hall is ISU's running back coach and worked directly with Robinson. Prairie State Pigskin spoke with Hall in late March by phone.

"There’s a lot of (draft) predictions, as early as third or fourth or as late as fifth and sixth," Hall said. "James did what he needed to do when he went to the combine. He tested well, I think he was top five in all the major categories except for the 40. But for the style of back James is, he ran under a 4.6 on many of the scouts’ watches and that was enough for a 220-pounder. With James, the sky’s the limit for him. Whoever takes him is getting a steal. He’s an NFL every down back."

Will special teams be the difference?

For a player like Robinson, showing the ability to play on special teams can be a determining factor.

"It would be very important as you’re making an NFL roster," Hall said. "That third guy, that fourth guy, sometimes even the second guy, you’ve got to be able to do multiple things to earn your spot. That’s one thing about James Robinson, in his early years here he played special teams.

"Coach Spack and I joke around that if he wasn’t so great a running back, he’d have been a dang good strong safety or 'Will' (weakside) linebacker in a 4-3 defense. He has that type of mindset. Throughout the (pro evaluation) process I was asked about that (special teams) a lot. There’s not a doubt in my mind that he’ll be able to do that."

Luther Kirk

Meanwhile, Luther Kirk, Robinson's teammate at both Illinois State and in the East-West Shrine Bowl, is most likely to sign with an NFL team as a free agent following the draft.

Brugler of The Athletic ranks Kirk as the 28th-best safety.

Kirk, who nearly quit football midway through his time at Illinois State, garnered defensive MVP honors at the East-West Shrine Bowl. The Garland, Texas, native had an interception (and lost another to a penalty on another defensive back). Kirk recorded two tackles.

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