TUSCALOOSA — Like most of the four- and five-star players Alabama recruits, Brian Robinson Jr. was confident in his ability coming in, even compared against the “other” running back in the Crimson Tide’s loaded 2017 signing class.
But, also like many that have come before him have learned, the ability to play early in their Alabama careers is hardly a guarantee. In fact, those that do see the field right away are usually the exception, not the rule.
It’s why now, as the bruising 226-pound junior readies to finally step out of the shadows and take his place as one of the Tide’s lead tailbacks this season, Robinson believes he’s better prepared for the opportunity ahead precisely for having experienced “the Process.”
“You should take that as a humbling experience and just focus on just getting better so that you are ready to play,” Robinson said Thursday when asked about waiting his turn. “If you’re not ready to play, the coaches are not going to lie to you. The film’s not going to lie to you. So, at that point, you just need to focus on what you need to get better so that you will be when you are granted the opportunity to play.”
As a four-star recruit from Tuscaloosa’s Hillcrest High in 2017, Robinson arrived at Alabama as one of the nation’s Top 150 players and rated the eighth-best running back in the class, according to 247Sports.com’s composite rankings. Of course, that same signing class also included five-star California product Najee Harris, the nation’s No. 1 running back and No. 2 overall player per the 247 composite rankings.
The duo joined a loaded Crimson Tide tailback room that already featured reliable juniors Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, who combined for 1,849 yards and 13 touchdowns the season before. The team’s change-of-pace option in the backfield was eventual first-round pick Josh Jacobs.
Suffice it to say, Robinson began his collegiate career buried on the depth chart.
“The most challenging part about (it) is you come here, you compete and work hard every day, and just coming from high school, being ‘that guy,’ you expect to go out there and just be granted the opportunity immediately,” said Robinson, who rushed for 990 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior at Hillcrest.
“You’re like, ‘Why am I not this? Why am I not this?’ (But) you’re not ready, and the film’s not going to lie to you. So, most guys, it’s just hard for them to just accept the fact that they’re just not ready to play as much as they think that they’re ready to play.”
For the next two years, Robinson’s in-game appearances — especially out of the backfield — were few and far between. Among the 26 games he’s participated in, Robinson only managed 10 or more carries three times, all in lopsided blowouts in the first half of last season. Robinson’s workload significantly fell off down the stretch, though. He gained just 31 yards on six total carries over the final seven games of the year, including zero rushing attempts in the final four games.
Even Alabama head coach Nick Saban admits that may have been a mistake.
“If there's anybody that deserved more in terms or their role a year ago it was probably him,” Saban said Wednesday of Robinson. “The depth of the position probably didn't allow him to get as many turns as even (we) would’ve liked for him to, but I don’t think that impeded his development at all because he’s got great knowledge and experience and he’s been able to play enough to know what it’s like to play in big games. I’m sure he’ll do a great job for us this year.”
In two years, Robinson has combined on 87 total carries for 437 yards (averaging 5 yards per carry) and four touchdowns, including 63 carries for 272 yards and two touchdowns in 2018.
Despite the limited carries, Robinson has more than proven himself to Alabama’s coaches.
“Brian Robinson’s done a really good job with whatever we’ve asked him to do. He’s certainly matured (since) he’s been in the program,” Saban said. “He’s been an outstanding special teams player.
“He’s a really good competitor. He’s got toughness. He’s very instinctive as a runner. I think he’s got good overall knowledge of the offense. There’s no reason for him to not to be able to assume a greater role (this season).”
The expectation is Robinson will pair with the dynamic Najee Harris to create a familiar thunder-and-lightning backfield combination that Tide fans have grown accustomed to in recent years. True freshmen additions Trey Sanders and Keilan Robinson may provide quality depth along with redshirt freshman Jerome Ford, the team’s lone running back signee from a year ago.
With added expectations come greater responsibility, which is exactly what Brian Robinson Jr. has been preparing for since he first arrived on campus.
“Obviously it’s more serious,” Robinson said. “I always took things serious, but it’s just the next level now, knowing that my role’s increasing and I’ll be used for more things. (It’s) just focusing on everything I need to fix in order to be prepared.”
Alex Byington is the Alabama beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser.