By Meghan Rominger | @MeghanRominger
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Growing up in Tuscaloosa, surrounded by the ever-present buzz of the University of Alabama’s football team and its status as an unassailable behemoth on the gridiron, all Brian Robinson Jr. wanted was to play for the Crimson Tide under those bright lights.
“Just watching Alabama play in national championships as a kid was like the biggest college football game you can watch,” Robinson said last week. “And anybody who truly loved football or just sports just loved watching their favorite team playing in the national championship.”
On Monday night, in front of thousands of Alabama fans who he has labored for five years to impress and excite, Robinson will be a key player in the Tide’s scheme to defeat the Georgia Bulldogs for the College Football Playoff National Championship. The Alabama tailback will make his 14th start of the season and career, and will aim to add to an impressive senior campaign that’s currently propelled him to the top of this year’s SEC leaderboard. So far, Robinson is first in the conference in rushing touchdowns (14), second in attempts (249) and third in rushing yards (1,275).
His perseverance and sense of commitment have been more difficult to measure.
“He embodies what we really try to get our players to do, create value for themselves by what they invest in and what they do,” said Alabama head coach Nick Saban after the Tide’s Cotton Bowl victory. “And it took him a long time to do that, but he kept working at it. There are so many players now that cut and run as soon as things don’t happen and they get immediate self-gratification from whatever their circumstance is.”
But Robinson is facing quite the challenge — though this will be his fourth trip to the championship in his tenure at Alabama, Monday’s game will be his first-ever start in college football’s biggest game. He’ll be battling the nation’s No. 1 ranked defense, a unit that has given up only 9.6 points per game.
The Bulldogs have allowed only 75 rushing first downs this year and allowed opponents an average of only 2.7 yards per rush and three rushing touchdowns.
Robinson has averaged 98.1 rushing yards per game this season, which is more than the Georgia defense concedes to entire squads — the Bulldogs have held opponents to 82.4 rush yards per game. The Alabama tailback, who averages 5.1 yards per carry, only collected 55 yards, his second fewest this season, with no touchdowns against Georgia’s defense in the SEC Championship game on December 4.
“I have experience playing games like this under these lights and against teams like Georgia,” Robinson said. “And with me already seeing Georgia, playing them one time this season, I kind of know what to expect from them.”
For five long years, Robinson has been biding his time and studying his predecessors, knowing that one day his moment in the spotlight would arrive.
In 2017, Robinson’s lifelong dream of playing Alabama football turned into reality. A four-star recruit out of Hillcrest High School, the running back joined a Nick Saban program that has consistently been branded “Running Back U” for its potential to polish tailbacks into star athletes and NFL success stories.
But Robinson’s journey to the pinnacle of college football – and the moment he’s always dreamed about – wasn’t that easy.
When he first suited up for the Tide, Robinson joined a roster that included household-name talents like Damien Harris and Bo Scarborough. The Tuscaloosa kid would have to wait his turn.
As a freshman in 2017, Robinson didn’t start in any of his 11 appearances, recording only 24 carries for 165 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t start any games in his sophomore and junior seasons either, playing in 15 and 13 games respectively. Last year, as a senior, the running back was again relegated to a limited role, rushing for only 483 yards on 93 attempts and six touchdowns.
But he remained undeterred.
“Everybody’s story is just different,” Robinson said. “But regardless of when your opportunity is going to be granted, you still have to prepare for it.”
And prepare he did. Returning this season for his fifth and final year, he nabbed the starting job and channeled his first four years of experience into his new role; refusing to jump ship, he spent four seasons watching, learning and waiting for the opportunity that had he’d now grasped.
Given the coveted starting role, the running back immediately made the most of it. Five games into the season, he’d tallied 379 yards on 73 carries, recording a then-career-high 171 yards against Ole Miss on October 9.
Week after week, Robinson continued to prove he belonged. In last week’s Cotton Bowl outing against the No. 4 ranked Cincinnati Bearcats, he began to cement his legacy.
Robinson rushed for 37 yards on six carries in the first eight drives of the game. At halftime, the tailback had tallied 134 yards on 17 carries; by the end of the game, he’d collected 204 yards on 26 carries for an average of 7.8 yards per attempt. The Crimson Tide defeated Cincinnati 27-6, sending the No. 1 ranked squad to the national championship game in pursuit of its 19th national title.
“With Coach Saban, he always had faith in me since day one when he recruited me.
He trusted that I was going to come here, do everything I needed to do to be successful,” Robinson told media during the national championship press conference on Monday, January 3. “And since my time here, I can say he’s done all that, he’s done everything in his power to help me just continue to grow on and off the field.”
For his part in the victory, Robinson was named the Offensive Most Valuable Player of the game, with his 204 rushing yards marking a career high and Alabama bowl record.
“I didn’t think I was going to be a spotlight,” Robinson said after the game. “We just game-planned. It was just, whatever they throw at us, we got to adjust to it. Coach (Bill) O’Brien trusted me, just put the ball in my hand in critical situations. And just carrying this team means a lot to me.”
So far this season, Robinson has recorded individual game career highs in rushes (36), rushing yards (204), longest rush (63 yards), touchdowns (4), receptions (5) and longest reception (51 yards).
Coming off of his dominant Cotton Bowl performance, Robinson feels mentally, physically and emotionally ready to start in his first-ever national championship game – the ultimate goal that brewed in the back of his mind during his first four years at Alabama.
“From the following years just as the years go by, I just felt like I couldn’t waste that time just because I wasn’t playing a lot or on the field as much as I wanted to be,” Robinson said. “I still had to train. I still had to prepare the same way as my opportunity was going to come at any moment. And with this being my opportunity now, I just felt like I’m preparing myself for it over the years, but working hard and still training hard.”
For his part, Saban believes Robinson is prepared and qualified. The running back’s resilience and loyalty haven’t gone unnoticed; it’s what has put him in the perfect position to shine in the moment he’s been dreaming about since he was a child.
“He certainly showed a tremendous amount of resiliency to stick with it, stay in the program, keep working,” Saban said. “But there’s probably not a whole lot of successful people in this world that don’t have a lot of resiliency because you have to be able to overcome adversity. And he’s done that and become a very fine person and a really good player.”
Though Robinson has spent his whole career at Alabama embracing his role and waiting for his big moment, now that it’s arrived Robinson isn’t putting undue pressure on himself or overstepping his capabilities. He’s worked so hard so that when the moment arrived, he could simply live in it, enjoy it and give the university the kind of goodbye he feels Tuscaloosa deserves.
“My mentality is I want to lay it all on the line for my team, for my school,” said Robinson. “With this being my last time suiting up for Alabama, I just want to leave no doubt that this university is like truly in my heart, and I love it…
“And I’ll do anything to see us come out on top one more last time before I have to leave.”