Even by the rough and tumble standards of major college football, Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. has dealt with plenty of setbacks during his longer-than-expected college career.
Despite being from Tuscaloosa — or maybe in spite of it — he considered leaving when he failed to break into the starting lineup as a sophomore … and then as a junior … then again as a senior. A once highly coveted prospect, he could have said “forget it” this past offseason and gone to the NFL as a potential late-round pick, forsaking the extra year of eligibility afforded to everyone by the NCAA because of COVID-19. He didn’t. He was determined to make the most of his last opportunity.
He finally became the starter this summer, but even that didn’t come without a potential complication: Robinson promptly cracked one of his ribs three weeks into the season against Florida. Nevertheless, he took only one week off, against Southern Miss, and hasn’t missed a game since. He’s watched two of his backups suffer season-ending injuries, and he hasn’t flinched, shouldering the load with the 11th-most carries in the Power 5 (223).
Despite playing behind one of the least effective offensive lines of the Nick Saban era at Alabama, Robinson has made the most of it with 56.9% of his 1,071 rushing yards coming after contact. A tough, physical runner with deceptive quickness, he leads the SEC with 68 evaded tackles, which is a combination of broken and missed tackles. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. now ranks Robinson as the No. 8 draft-eligible running back on his latest Big Board.
Originally, Robinson thought going to Alabama would be a three- or maybe four-year proposition in which he’d learn all he could before punching his ticket to the NFL.
“It felt like getting knocked down and it was a low point and there was nothing I could do about it,” he said, looking back on his journey. “You can just keep working and working and working, and still it’s not going to get handed to you. But you still gotta keep working and keep working and trust it.”
He paused for a moment.
“Just keep faith,” he said.
As No. 1 Alabama prepares to play No. 4 Cincinnati in the CFP semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl in Texas, Robinson figures to once again play a feature role on offense. With star receiver John Metchie III out with a knee injury, the running game will need to take some of the pressure off Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young.
The good news: With 26 days between games, Robinson figures to be healthier than he’s been since early September. Not that he minds running through the pain. He racked up 71 yards on 18 touches against Georgia’s top-ranked defense in the SEC championship despite dealing with a pulled hamstring, a recently broken rib and whatever other bumps and bruises he’s accumulated over the course of the year.
“First of all,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Robinson, “I’m really proud.”
Proud of the progress he’s made.
Proud of the work he’s put in.
Proud of his patience and resilience.
Saban is proud of Robinson’s entire story, which he said is an example to everyone inside the program.
“He’s invested a lot in it,” Saban said. “And it’s always good to see people get rewarded for the investment they made.”
On Sept. 4, 2015, Brian Robinson Jr. arrived.
A day earlier, he was just another promising young running back trying to make his way at Hillcrest High School, which is less than 10 miles from Bryant-Denny Stadium and the heart of the University of Alabama campus. A junior, Robinson had dreams of playing for the Crimson Tide but hadn’t received much interest from Saban and his staff. Ole Miss and Cincinnati were sniffing around, but Division I schools weren’t knocking down his door just yet.
Hillcrest coach Sam Adams remembers Robinson as a physical runner who sought out contact and couldn’t be tackled by one man. “He was effortlessly athletic — springy,” Adams said, “bouncing up and down like a pogo stick” during drills. He could be funny, but he knew when to be serious, too.
“He always had his ultimate goals in mind, even from a very early age,” Adams said. “And he was driven to do whatever he had to do to achieve them.”
That Friday against powerhouse Clay-Chalkville High School, it all came together. Adams recalled how Robinson started off slowly and then found his rhythm in the second quarter and exploded.
“He just rips off long run after a long run after long run,” Adams said. “I mean, he was just dominant.”
Robinson had roughly 200 yards before halftime. In the end, he set a Class 6A record with 447 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 29 carries. He also had a 23-yard touchdown catch in the 41-40 loss.
“After that,” Robinson said, “I started to receive all the big offers I was waiting around for. I can say that one game was life-changing.”
A slew of SEC coaching staffs showed up at Hillcrest after that, including Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. There were so many letters from so many programs across the country that they covered the entirety of Robinson’s bed.
The following week, he was on Alabama’s campus for an unofficial visit when he and his mother were told to head up to Saban’s office. Saban gave his usual pitch about the program and where Robinson fit in when his mother, Kimberly Little, stopped the conversation to make one thing clear: Was her boy getting a scholarship offer? So many years of hard work had been leading up to this that she had to be sure.
Kimberly loved her son with everything she had, and that meant pushing him hard at times. Her friends and family jokingly call her Madea from the Tyler Perry comedies because she is so tough and unafraid to speak her mind. For going on 25 years, she’s been working with patients at a local psychiatric hospital. Still, she always managed to be there for her son’s games.
When Brian was young, she had to defend him against other parents who asked to see his birth certificate because he was so big and didn’t look his age. In high school, because he was so dominant, she saw how he was unfairly targeted, whether it was opposing fans threatening him on social media or players trying to take a cheap shot and knock him out of the game.
“He always had to make his own way,” she recalled. “And, honey, he stayed hurt more than anything. But you wouldn’t know because he would always go out there and want to play.”
When Saban said yes, he was offering a scholarship, Robinson and Little looked at one another. There was a lot in that moment of eye contact, Robinson said: the love and respect they had for one another, the love and respect they had for Alabama football and the feeling of a dream coming true.
“It was something so special for me, for her, and for people so close to us that felt the same way about Alabama,” Robinson said.
Robinson sat on the offer for a little while. Cam Akers, the No. 1-ranked running back in the class, was already committed to Alabama at the time. So was Najee Harris, the No. 2 running back in the class. Derrick Henry was projected to leave for the NFL draft as a junior, but future pros Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Kenyan Drake and Josh Jacobs were already on campus waiting their turn.
When Robinson committed to Alabama at the end of his junior season, he knew exactly what he was getting into.
He recognized he’d have to wait. He just didn’t know how long it would be.
If Robinson could talk to his younger self, he’d tell him that signing his letter of intent with Alabama wasn’t as simple as putting his name on a piece of paper. He’d say that it represented a “full commitment,” that it meant he’d have to work to contribute and to go to class and to be responsible and to approach everything he did as if it was a job.
“I had to learn how to be on my own,” he said. “I would have looked at it on a more adult level instead of a 17-year-old about to come to school just to play football.”
That maturity didn’t come easily. Akers eventually flipped his commitment and signed with Florida State, but it didn’t help Robinson’s case for playing time all that much. He found himself buried on the depth chart, finishing seventh on the team in carries as a freshman and then fourth as a sophomore. As a junior, he finally reached 90 carries as Najee Harris’ primary backup. But then Harris surprised many when he didn’t turn pro after running for more than 1,200 yards, which meant Robinson was once again relegated to second-string as a senior.
Time and time again, Robinson felt like he was getting knocked down. Thankfully, he had family and friends nearby to turn to during difficult times. Without his mother’s support, he doesn’t know where he’d be. But being a hometown kid was a double-edged sword. It meant he couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized or questioned in a roundabout way about why he wasn’t playing more. His family would come to every game to cheer him on, but that came with its own pressure.
“That’s what makes it so hard,” he said, “because you know they want to see you on the field so bad and you’re not.”
Kimberly felt her son’s disappointment. She saw how haunted he was by what might have been if he had signed elsewhere out of high school. Understandably, he got angry and considered leaving Alabama.
“He stuck with the decision he made,” she said, “but he thought about it several times.”
She wondered whether he might go to the NFL at the end of last season, having felt like he already paid his dues, and was proud when he decided against it.
Robinson said he thought long and hard about what it would mean for him to leave having never been the starter.
“It was like, I’d never give that up for anything in the world,” he said. “I always wanted to do this, no matter how long it would take.”
Despite the long wait and despite the injuries and despite a lackluster offensive line, Robinson has made the most out of his last chance. He ranks third in the SEC in rushing yards. During Robinson’s first four seasons on campus, he combined to score 15 touchdowns. This season, he’s at 16 touchdowns and counting.
Two years ago, Robinson watched as Jerome Ford, who was a year behind him at Alabama, entered the transfer portal in search of a better opportunity. Ford eventually signed with Cincinnati, which was an up-and-coming Group of 5 program at the time.
The fact that the two backs will go head-to-head as starters in the Cotton Bowl on Friday is almost too serendipitous to be true.
Robinson said he’s excited for his former teammate, and looking forward to putting the finishing touches on his own career.
Games like this, he explained, are exactly why he came back.
“This is pretty much everything I’ve been looking for,” he said. “It’s been an exciting year for me because I waited so long for it. I’m so happy to be in this position right now.”
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