When it comes to talented NFL Draft prospects at the FCS level, Illinois State University rusher James Robinson is the cream of the crop. Robinson, who headlines a group of talented running backs at the FCS level for the 2019 season, has been a consistent playmaker for the Redbirds since his arrival in 2016. Some have even compared him to Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson, citing similar traits that have translated well for Johnson and could do the same for Robinson.
Small-school legend growing
Robinson, a Rockford, Illinois native, was only regarded as a two-star prospect coming from the high school level and only received one FBS offer from Iowa, despite being the nation’s 15th ranked all-time leading rusher.
After rushing for 2,461 yards and 44 touchdowns as a high school senior, Robinson decided to forego the offer from Iowa and chose to stay at home to attend Illinois State University so he can play football.
After starting only two games during his freshman year, Robinson was determined to make his mark in the following years. In 2017 and 2018, during his sophomore and junior seasons, Robinson was named to the FCS All-American Team.
He scored 12 touchdowns for the Redbirds in back-to-back seasons while eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark for the first time last season. He averaged over six yards per rush as a junior.
Just take a look at this run by Robinson against Western Illinois. He shows excellent balance, a penchant for breaking tackles, and the ability to stop on a dime.
Candidate #1: James Robinson outta Illinois State. 117yds/g, 12 TDs, and 6.29 yds/att in 2018 pic.twitter.com/vwVDVOh1a0
— Trevor Joseph (@EveryTrevorEver) June 5, 2019
Robinson was a finalist for the FCS Walter Payton Award and FCS All-American as a junior in 2018. The talented runner was also named to the Walter Payton preseason watch list for 2019 is off to another great start this season. To his credit, Robinson has amassed 676 yards rushing and nine touchdowns through his first six games.
Robinson has seen his receptions decline in 2019, but he’s still averaging a healthy 5.2 yards per rush. If he can continue his strong play and improve as a receiver down the stretch, Robinson will set himself up well for the NFL Draft.
The next David Johnson?
Robinson is already being dubbed as the next David Johnson by one NFL Draft scout as he shares some of the same explosive and dual-threat characteristics as the Cardinals’ star tailback. Both are similar sizes as Robinson is 5’10”, 220 pounds while Johnson stands 6’1″ and 224 pounds. The two also have great vision and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Like Johnson, Robinson is sturdy enough to become an every-down back in the NFL. That ability to grind on early downs, but also stay in on third downs and contribute in the passing game, will make him a valuable commodity on draft day. As you can see in the highlight below, Robinson has superior vision and the ability to make people miss in short areas.
Illinois State RB James Robinson is a fun small school guy to watch for the 2020 NFL Draft. A nice one-cut runner with strong contact balance. pic.twitter.com/Jix7NzVZWR
— Rob Paul (@RobPaulNFL) July 15, 2019
You can also count in PFN’s own Tony Pauline as someone who likes Robinson’s good size and vision out of the backfield. Back in September, Robinson was mentioned as a small-school sleeper by PFN’s own Tony Pauline for this very reason.
The similarities continue with Johnson when you look at a possible trajectory for Robinson. Johnson started as a returner and third-down back for the Cardinals. before taking over as the starter at running back towards the end of the 2015 season. Robinson could follow a similar path as he begins his professional career next season.
While he may not share the same home run speed as Johnson, Robinson could heavily contribute in many ways during his rookie season, especially on special teams where he has proven to be successful.
As the kick returner for Illinois State in his freshman season, he averaged 23.2 yards per return as the kick returner. That return ability will be the key to Robinson’s early playing time in the NFL. Looking ahead to the NFL Combine, his measurements and stats will be important for him when it comes to the NFL scouting community. But based on what I have already seen from him, I can project that will run in the late 4.4’s or early 4.5’s in the 40-yard dash.
The only obstacle facing Robinson is a loaded 2020 class at the running back position. Regardless, he is a player that has the potential to be well-regarded within the NFL circles.
Like Johnson, who was a third rounder for the Cardinals in 2015, I can see Robinson getting selected around that range as well. However, when it’s all said and done, I think it is more likely his name is called in the fifth round.
A team that makes a lot of sense is the Kansas City Chiefs, especially with head coach Andy Reid at the helm. He knows how to utilize talented dual-threat runners and would be an excellent fit for Robinson. Kansas City has also shown an affinity for players from Illinois State. Consider this – the team has drafted three Redbirds in team history, with one as recent as 2015 (TE James O’Shaughnessy).
Could another soon be on the way? Robinson’s performance through the end of the college football season will be the answer.
Scott Gorman is a writer for PFN covering the Pittsburgh Steelers and NFL Draft. You can follow him at @sgormanPFN on Twitter.