Recent history indicates that the Kansas Jayhawks, who have combined for six wins over the past two seasons, are perennially found at the bottom of the Big 12 Conference standings. However, any preconceived notions regarding the 2020 Jayhawks should be dispelled. The highly esteemed Les Miles will have a veteran defense, an explosive backfield — and one of the top receiving corps in the nation at his disposal.
Last season, Kansas’ senior WR Stephon Robinson Jr. finished seventh in the Big 12 in yards per reception (16.2) and ninth in receiving yards (727), but hasn’t gotten the recognition that he deserves. That should change this season, as the speedy pass-catcher is likely to warrant national attention in due time.
The journey of Kansas WR Stephon Robinson Jr.
For Stephon Robinson Jr., football and perseverance have always gone hand-in-hand.
“My older brother played football, so it was a no-brainer,” Robinson recalled. “I played flag, then I went to tackle [football]. My mom asked me if I wanted to play, and I said, ‘Yeah,’ then after a couple practices, I didn’t want to do it anymore. But my mom stuck me in, and I kept going. Along that time period, I had a lot of ups and downs with football — being doubted, whether it’s for my size growing up or whatever — but I kept it pushing, and whatever cards were dealt to me, I made it work.”
Robinson, who honed a defensive background prior to reaching Nathaniel Narbonne Senior High School in Los Angeles, California, decided to initiate a career-altering transition as a freshman.
Returning to practice after missing a week of spring workouts, Robinson learned that the coaching staff had already identified its core defensive group. To circumvent spending his first season on the sideline, Robinson decided to switch to offense and begin learning the wide receiver position. Though the diminutive pass-catcher played sparingly as a freshman, his effectiveness in a limited capacity garnered the coaching staff’s attention.
While Robinson’s promising junior season was marred due to a broken wrist, his persistence and preparation eventually paid dividends. As a senior, a steadfast Robinson caught 65 receptions for 1,304 yards and 17 touchdowns. Serving as the Gauchos’ offensive engine, Robinson yielded first-team All-City and All-Marine League honors.
Although Robinson received two Division II offers and generated moderate interest from several Mountain West programs, he was impressed with the prospects of El Camino College. Enamored with the offensive system and concept of utilizing the junior college experience as a vehicle to springboard him to the Division I ranks, Robinson made his decision.
“I felt I had a better opportunity if I played junior college to develop more,” Robinson said.
El Camino College
Viewing the latest curveball in his winding path to prominence as a detour rather than a roadblock, Robinson was determined to make the most of his newfound opportunity.
“Going into it, I didn’t know what to expect,” Robinson admitted. “My main focus was to have my grades together and play the best I can. You can either go one of two ways; you can be with the crowd that’s doing everything right, or the crowd that’s doing everything wrong. The crowd that’s doing stuff wrong, are the guys who end up staying there and never get out.
“I tried to put myself in the perspective of doing what’s right — passing all of my courses, being at practice, being nice to everybody, being respectful to others. Also, being humble; not get too high on yourself and not think you’re better than anybody else. I stayed in that bubble and continued to work hard. I never thought I was bigger than the program.”
Robinson played in 11 games for the Warriors, amassing 62 receptions for 1,274 yards and eight touchdowns. With his breakout season, which included seven 100-yard outings, the oft-overlooked wide receiver set the El Camino College all-time single-season receiving record.
While many struggle to navigate junior college’s uncharted territory, Robinson refused to let any obstacle derail his path.
“I went to junior college with a lot of my close friends,” Robinson said. “Some guys, they didn’t stay on the path — guys just skipping classes or not doing what they’re supposed to do. I always try to be different; I had a goal in mind and knew what I needed to do to get there. I just stayed on that path. I told my family about the opportunity that I had, and I just made the most of it. And that’s really what junior college is about.”
On the heels of his record-setting season, Robinson began to drum up interest among recruiting circles again. His initial offer came from Sacred Heart, and was soon followed by Middle Tennessee State, Hawaii, and others.
Although Middle Tennessee State particularly piqued Robinson’s interest, primarily due to the staff’s attentiveness and an enticing offensive system, they surprisingly pulled their offer.
As disheartening as the news was for Robinson, he received a call from Kansas later that evening, who extended an offer.
“I looked at it as, ‘[Kansas] is a Power 5 school, they play in one of the best conferences against the best competition, so why not?’ That was a no-brainer to me.”
Climbing the Jayhawks’ depth chart
With the Jayhawks returning roughly a dozen receivers, Robinson entered spring practices at a decided disadvantage. However, even amidst a veteran-laden receiving corps, his sole focus remained the same: Be the most consistent player.
While he started from the ground up, Robinson’s progression was fast-tracked thanks to senior wideout Steven Sims.
“We would go through tennis ball drills, just me and him one-on-one after practice,” Robinson recalled. “Also, his route running — just paying attention and how crisp he can make a route look. He can make you think he’s running one thing, and then run another. So, just watching him and how smooth he is out of his breaks.”
Robinson, who was originally slotted behind Sims on the depth chart, was moved to the other side before the season.
Appearing in all 12 games (ten starts) in 2018, Robinson finished with 28 receptions for 330 yards and a touchdown. He caught his first touchdown in a blowout loss to Texas Tech and reeled in two 30-plus yard receptions in consecutive games against TCU and Iowa State.
Robinson earned All-Big 12 honorable mention recognition, as well as Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll and Athletic Director’s Honor Roll.
Junior breakthrough on the biggest stage
Coming off a dismal 3-9 season under David Beatty, Kansas decided to part ways with the head coach, replacing him with long-time LSU head coach Les Miles in November of 2018.
A new sheriff in town meant the Jayhawks’ depth chart needed to be reconfigured.
“I had to start from rock bottom again,” Robinson said. “When we played in the spring, I was a second-string, utility type of player. I had to humble myself, work hard, and be more consistent than the man next to me.”
In the months that followed, Robinson outperformed his competition with consistency and resiliency and ultimately reclaimed his position atop the depth chart before the season opener.
Starting all ten games, Robinson finished second among Jayhawks’ pass-catchers, registering 45 receptions for 727 yards and eight touchdowns.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound receiver recorded three multiple-touchdown games in succession. He caught five passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns against No. 6 ranked Oklahoma, seven receptions for 67 yards and two touchdowns against Texas, and six receptions for 186 yards and two touchdowns in a three-point victory over Texas Tech.
Robinson’s performance against Texas Tech landed him on the Paul Hornung Award Weekly Honor Roll.
Stephon Robinson Jr.’s 2020 outlook
Following three collegiate offseasons brimming with uncertainty, Robinson enters his senior campaign entrenched as a starting wide receiver.
Robinson, who appeared on the Paul Hornung Award watch list and third-team All-Big 12 watch list, is part of a senior-laden Kansas receiving corps that includes Andrew Parchment and Kwamie Lassiter II.
The trust factor and familiarity that the group had with former Jayhawks’ quarterback Carter Stanley is now a distant memory. The Kansas trio has spent the offseason building chemistry with junior Miles Kendrick and senior Thomas MacVittie. Les Miles has yet to name a starting signal-caller ahead of the Jayhawks’ season opener on September 12.
Despite his slight stature, Robinson is widely regarded as one of the conference’s quickest and most explosive pass-catchers. Robinson, a student of the game, often wins on technique and mastering the position’s subtleties.
“Using my quickness, being an intellectual on the field, knowing what spots are open,” Robinson explained. “And just knowing your personnel, who you’re going against — what are they not good at? I’m going to attack that, attack that shoulder, attack that leverage. My receiver coach [Emmett Jones], he talks a lot about that — just knowing who you’re going against, attacking shoulders, and attacking blind spots.”
Amid constant turmoil, Robinson remained steadfast in his journey toward college football stardom. With the season opener days away, Robinson is finally positioned to become a household name in 2020. However, the Los Angeles native has learned never to take anything for granted.
“It’s just another chance to show people I’m one of those receivers across the country that can make noise and should be talked about more.”