How Alabama football RB Brian Robinson's long wait prepared him for starting opportunity

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

Alabama football running back Brian Robinson has heard all the questions.

What’s going on, Brian?

Why aren’t the coaches playing you?

When are you going to start?

Any player who had been a backup with a four-star rating like Robinson would probably receive similar questions from back home. But Robinson is playing for the university in his hometown, and that takes the pressure and frequency to another level. Especially when Robinson hasn’t yet been the starter since joining the Crimson Tide roster in 2017.

Oct 3, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Texas A&M linebacker Buddy Johnson (1) hits Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. (4) as he runs in the middle  at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama defeated A&M 52-24. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports

He also wasn’t just any player from Tuscaloosa. His cousin, former Alabama receiver Josh Lanier, called him the neighborhood superstar; Robinson once carried the ball 29 times for Hillcrest for 447 yards. 

When spending time with his cousin, Lanier got to hear many of the questions people had for Robinson about playing time. 

“I used to notice how it used to get to him,” Lanier told The Tuscaloosa News. “That used to bother him a little bit.”

Many might have given up by now. Moved on. Transferred. Pursued something else after four years of being a backup.

Not Robinson.

He took action through patience. He didn’t waste his waiting. He worked, he grew as a person, and he’s ready now in ways he might not have been had he started years ago.

Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA;  Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner (20) tackles Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. (4) during the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Hard Rock Stadium.

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And as of Monday, he’s listed as Alabama’s No. 1 running back heading into the opener against Miami on Saturday.

“I’ve worked my whole life for this opportunity,” Robinson said. “I did everything I could up to this point to put myself in this position. The biggest thing for me to do now is just take advantage of my opportunity and continue to work hard every day, and hopefully, I can get everything I want out of this deal.”

During the process of waiting, parts of Robinson haven’t changed. He’s always been the guy who could walk into a Tuscaloosa classroom and make a teacher beam with joy. He’s the one who, anytime he visits an old school, at least five former teachers post a picture with him on social media, former teammate Cole Frederick said. Robinson has also maintained his sense of humor, frequently sending funny videos to Lanier on Facebook messenger and Instagram that Robinson is more than happy to re-enact.

And Robinson has always been an impressive athlete. They used to call him Big B, Lanier said. Young Tuscaloosa football players knew they couldn’t stop him in middle school. He was tall and athletic enough to dunk in seventh grade. 

Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA;  Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. (4) hurdles Ohio State safety Josh Proctor (41) as he runs during the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

“This guy, he was just unbelievable physical-wise, putting in the work and all that,” former Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough said. “Mentally, he had a little ways to go.”

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Scarbrough, a Northport native who played for Alabama from 2015 to 2017, has known him since Robinson was in high school, talking on the phone every so often to this day. When they chatted in 2018, Scarbrough said he could tell Robinson was still in a kid mindset.

“He wasn’t focused to the point that he needed to be,” Scarbrough said.

In their phone conversations now, Scarbrough has seen that change drastically over the past year. Much of that stems from Robinson’s response to a lack of playing time in 2020. He saw only 21.4% of the running back carries, compared to 25.4% in 2019. Meanwhile, Najee Harris received 55.29% in 2019 and 60.60% in 2020.

“I think when he didn’t play much last year, that opened his eyes up and made him realize he needed to get his stuff together,” Scarbrough said.

Robinson also graduated in December 2020, which served as a bit of a turning point. Since then, Lanier said, Robinson has been locked in on football. He’s spending more time in the training room and in the coaches’ offices with the playbook.

Nov 9, 2019; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Brian Robinson Jr. (24) carries against the LSU Tigers during the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

“He’s ready to be shot out of there like a cannon,” Scarbrough said. “I just think he’s got so much athleticism on him built up that he is ready to use.”

Robinson's approach has improved, and part of that comes from the caliber of players he’s been around. Although running backs such as Damien Harris, Najee Harris, Josh Jacobs and Scarbrough limited Robinson’s playing time, his time with them proved beneficial and educational. 

“I really just learned just the work process,” Robinson said. “Just how we need to go about working every single day to get what we want.”

He’s also matured. Lanier, who transferred to Jackson State this offseason, said Robinson has become incredibly selfless. Lanier also noticed how Robinson has grown spiritually.

“He understands that, at the end of the day, it was already written,” Lanier said. “Whatever God has got for him, that’s what’s going to be for him.”

At one point when Lanier was spending time with Robinson this year, he heard Robinson field more questions as to why he wasn’t starting at running back or seeing more carries.

Ole Miss defensive back Jaylon Jones (31) dives to try to make a tackle on Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. (24) during the second half of Alabama's 59-31 victory over Ole Miss Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

But this time, Lanier saw Robinson respond differently. This time, the questions didn’t seem to bother Robinson.

Instead, he responded by saying he’s focused on winning a championship, he’s going to let the coaches coach, and he's going to play ball. 

“A lot of times, that stuff at Bama, it breaks a lot of people because they kind of break you down just to build you back up into a stronger person,” Lanier said. “It never really broke B.”

Contact Alabama football reporter Nick Kelly: nkelly@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly