The call that James Robinson had dreamed of his entire life never came.
For three days last year, the running back watched the NFL draft and waited for his phone to ring. Coaches from a handful of teams told the Illinois State product they had interest. But the draft concluded, and Robinson’s future remained unresolved. Having found himself in a similar position before, he turned his focus to getting on a team in whatever way possible.
Eventually, a call came from the San Francisco 49ers, then the Jacksonville Jaguars. Robinson accepted an offer from the Jags and repeated the mantra that made him successful in high school and college: “Just give them something they can’t really ignore.”
And boy, did he.
Jaguars running back James Robinson had a breakout rookie season. (Photo: Mike Watters, USA TODAY Sports)
Robinson forced his way onto the field in Jacksonville, starting 14 games this season and generating 1,414 yards of offense. Rushing for 1,070 and notching 344 receiving yards, the 5-foot-9, 219-pounder was the only rookie to average more than 100 yards from scrimmage this season. His rushing total ranks second in Jacksonville history behind Fred Taylor’s 1,223 in 1998.
Robinson tallied 10 touchdowns (seven rushing, three receiving), which was tied for fourth-most among rookies in 2020, and his 49 catches and three receiving touchdowns ranked first among rookies. That reception total also broke the Jacksonville record of 49 held by Maurice Jones-Drew.
Now, Robinson is on the ballot along with the Chargers’ Justin Herbert, Vikings’ Justin Jefferson, Colts’ Jonathan Taylor and Washington’s Chase Young for 2020 Pepsi Zero Sugar NFL Rookie of the Year honors, which is determined by fan votes and will be awarded on the eve of the Super Bowl.
“It means a lot,” Robinson told USA TODAY Sports. “I feel like I’ve shown that I should’ve been drafted. … With the attention part, you can’t really do anything about that, but it’s hard to ignore someone that’s doing pretty good, especially at the NFL level. So, it means a lot to me and especially to my family.”
Being overlooked was nothing new for Robinson. Despite amassing 9,045 rushing yards and 158 touchdowns during his high school career (44 touchdowns as a senior), he generated little interest from colleges. Then after rushing for 1,899 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior at Illinois State and garnering first-team All-American and all-conference honors, Robinson went undrafted.
But he remained undeterred, drawing on lessons his mother preached.
“Just growing up knowing that no matter what the circumstances are in front of you, you have to keep moving, and you have to keep your head above ground because the more distractions that you face, the worse things can get for you,” Robinson’s mother, Latricia, said. “From a very young age, he’s always had to perform and overcome things. That’s been the mindset.”
Soon after signing, Robinson realized he would face another obstacle. The coronavirus prevented teams from holding rookie minicamps or any offseason workouts, and also altered the preseason. But he was determined to prepare as thoroughly as possible.
“They gave us iPads, and I would always charge the iPad, go outside, study the iPad and run the plays,” Robinson recalled.
He ran the plays versus ghost defenders at his high school field, or in his girlfriend’s yard. At times, he even used a fence in his backyard to simulate having to repeatedly hurdle would-be tacklers.
“It was just what I had to do,” Robinson said.
When he got to Jacksonville, he soaked up as much information as he could.
“His demeanor was very interesting to me,” said teammate Chris Thompson, an eight-year veteran running back. “He was super quiet, and I feel like for the most part, I’m a pretty quiet guy if I’m not around people I know. But he was SUPER quiet. …
"But I could just see a little taste of his skill set. He had a lot of drive, but it was a little different than what you see in other guys. Other guys are all hyped up, but he was just super laid back and chill. And he would text me a lot, asking about the plays and everything.”
Jacksonville concluded the preseason with a hole at running back after waiving Leonard Fournette, but Robinson first aimed to get on the field through special teams, then by working his way into the offensive rotation. Eventually, he got his coaches' attention.
“Taking advantage of limited reps he got early, which led to more and more reps,” Jay Gruden, Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator last season, told USA TODAY Sports. “Then, showing he understood the passing game, protections, routes, and he had good hands. Then, consistency in his approach: working day in and day out. Great kid.”
Robinson wound up opening the season as Jacksonville's starter and held the job for 15 straight weeks until an ankle injury ended his season. He provided one of the few bright spots during the 1-15 campaign. Robinson's 1,414 scrimmage yards were the most by an undrafted rookie during the common draft era.
“I had asked him why he went undrafted and he said teams said something about he didn’t have good vision,” Thompson said. “But I don’t know what they were looking at, because this dude’s got some of the best vision I’ve seen. This dude is special. … His patience, and just being so under control is the biggest thing, and he has great hands.”
Robinson’s 1,070 rushing yards ranked fifth in the NFL this season, and he made the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie team. However, he was overlooked when it came to Pro Bowl voting.
“He wouldn’t say it, but I thought that was wrong,” Thompson said.
Robinson did make an impression on new coach Urban Meyer. Shortly after accepting Jacksonville’s head-coaching position, Meyer called Robinson to express optimism about working with him.
“He said he was really excited, and that meant a lot,” Robinson said.
However, he has no plans to alter his approach. In his mind, he still hasn’t arrived.
“I still haven’t had that feeling,” Robinson said. “I just have to keep working hard, not let up and make sure I keep getting better.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.
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