Illinois State’s Robinson goes undrafted, will sign as a free agent
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Prior to this weekend’s NFL Draft, veteran Illinois State head coach Brock Spack remained confident that James Robinson will make an NFL roster — whether the Redbirds’ star running back was selected in the seven-round event or went the undrafted free agent route.
Robinson’s name was not called in this year’s three-day draft, meaning that he was free to sign with any of the NFL’s 32 teams. Scott Leber, Rockford WTWO-ABC & Fox 39 sports director, reported that Robinson would sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars. ISU Assistant AD/Communications Mike Williams later confirmed Leber’s report.
“He’s a very explosive player. He’s extremely tough, got very good ball skills. He’s a very good athlete. He’s quicker and more deceptive than he is fast. He’s fast enough,” Spack told Prairie State Pigskin earlier this week.
Speed may have been a deterrent for Robinson, who ran a unofficial 4.64 timing in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in February.
NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein wrote: “Reliable runner with good feel for run-lane development but just average burst. Robinson’s feet, finesse and vision allow to probe from gap to gap against conference competition, but tighter NFL running lanes mean he’ll need to be more physical and more urgent to succeed between the tackles. The college production is unlikely to translate into the pros, but he’s well-rounded enough to compete for a back-end roster spot if he runs to his size and can play on special teams.”
Robinson, like Spack a Rockford native, saw his pro day cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he did play in the East-West Shrine Bowl as well as participating in the aforementioned Combine.
Spack is beginning his 12th season as Illinois State head coach. Prior to that, the former Purdue linebacker coached defensive backs at his alma mater 1991 to 1994. After serving as Joe Tiller’s defensive coordinator at Wyoming for two seasons, Spack returned to West Lafayette when Tiller was hired as Purdue’s head coach. Spack was Purdue’s defensive coordinator from 1997 to 2008. In Robinson, Spack sees glimpses of his Boilermaker past.
“James is built like a big-time back,” Spack said. “He reminds me a lot, but is a different player than a guy I recruited at Purdue a long time ago, Mike Alstott. He’s very similar to Mike, who was a tailback at Joliet Catholic and a fullback in college. I’m not saying that James is a fullback by all means, but however fast those two guys are, they get up to that speed very, very quickly. They can stop on a dime and change direction.”
According to nflcombineresults.com, Alstott ran a 4.68 time in the 40-yard dash in 1996. Though much has changed with the Combine in 24 years, comparing the two athletes’ performances, Robinson outperformed Alstott in vertical leap (40 inches to 33) and broad jump (125 inches to 117). Alstott ran a faster 20-yard shuttle (4.16 compared to 4.19). Both players did 24 reps in the bench press.
“Mike obviously was a bigger guy, he was almost 255 pounds when he played in the NFL, but James in 220 and 5-9, 5-10 maybe,” Spack said. “James is put together. He’s a load to tackle, especially when he gets in space. I think he’s going to be a very good special teams player. He can run and cover. He can hit. He’s a very good pass protector on offense. He’s big enough to do that stuff. He catches well. He catches punts and kickoffs if he has to do that. I think he has a lot of value to a team. I see him making it; I do.”
FCS draft numbers down
Sixteen running backs were taken in this year’s draft. Seven of those running back picks came after the third round. Six FCS players were picked, including Southern Illinois safety Jeremy Chinn who was the 64th overall pick. Thirteen FCS players got picked in last year’s draft.
Josh Buchanan, Phil Steele Magazine contributor and DraftScout.com scout, tweeted as the draft closed Saturday, “9 small schoolers drafted. I thought 12-14 would go and single digits or close to it would come next year for sure. 3 shocking snubs for me is PSU TE Taumoepeau, Ill St RB Robinson, SC St OT Taylor, and Montana LB Olson. The others I thought were 50/50 to get picked.”
Robinson is the all-time rushing leader in Illinois high school history, gaining 9,045 yards in four seasons at Rockford’s Lutheran High School. His 158 rushing touchdowns ranked fourth all-time nationally at the time he graduated.
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’s teammate and East-West Shrine Bowl Defensive MVP Luther Kirk will sign as a undrafted free agent with Dallas.