ASHBURN — Brain Robinson Jr. has a saying he relies on for motivation. The message helped guide him through his time at the University of Alabama, when the running back had to wait for his opportunity, when he realized he had to be dependable to become the Crimson Tide’s lead back.
Robinson said he had to take his focus “to a whole another level” to push himself and get the notice he needed to move up the depth chart. He thought of the big picture, how he wanted to reach the NFL.
“When my back is against the wall,” Robinson said, “it’s me versus me.”
It doesn’t take much to notice Robinson these days. The 23-year-old’s 6-foot-2, 228-pound stature makes him hard to ignore — especially in Washington’s backfield. The Commanders drafted Robinson in the third round to compliment starter Antonio Gibson and the crafty J.D. McKissic.
At Alabama, Robinson spent four seasons behind the likes of Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris — two stars who have gone on to be standouts for the Las Vegas Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively. When Robinson finally became the Crimson Tide’s main back last fall, he rushed for 1,343 yards and 14 touchdowns. But it was in the College Football Playoff when Robinson truly made a mark as he racked up a school-record 204 yards against Cincinnati — the most ever in a bowl game.
Robinson had to wait his turn in college, but with the Commanders, his opportunity should come sooner. Though Gibson is still the starter, coach Ron Rivera has said the team will rely on a “running back by committee” approach. And there’s room in that committee for Robinson, whose physical running style differs from the two veterans in front of him.
In Saturday’s preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers, Rivera said the team’s starters will play only 15 to 20 plays. That leaves plenty of reps for others like Robinson, who will get a chance to impose that physicality against an opposing NFL defense for the first time.
“I’ve got to stay motivated, the same way I had to motivate myself when I wasn’t in the position I am in now,” Robinson said. “I’ve got to keep that same mindset and keep working. When my opportunity comes, I’ll be ready for it. That’s just taking my preparation seriously.”
Since Washington drafted Robinson, running backs coach Randy Jordan says he’s wanted the rookie to look like the “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” In other words: Pads forward. Butt out. For backs as tall as Robinson, Jordan said the key is to bend through defenses and not give defenders more to hit.
But Robinson’s size also comes with a plus. Jordan said Robinson’s frame can wear out a defense as the game progresses, especially when also mixing in Gibson and McKissic. Gibson, 6 feet, is a more elusive runner who can snake around defenders. McKissic, 5-foot-10, brings speed.
“As a group, the volume of it and the different body types, it’s something that really, really — all of a sudden the linebackers and the DBs, it’s something they’ve got to be aware of,” Jordan said.
Rivera has a history of using multiple running backs, too. Before Christian McCaffrey became the feature back during Rivera’s last few years in Carolina, the coach relied on the trio of Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Fozzy Whitaker. That rotation — with each of their different styles — served as a model for what Rivera was looking for when building out Washington’s roster, the coach said.
“In today’s game, you can’t just have one really good back,” Rivera said. “You have to have a couple of really good backs that are your guys that you are going to feed the ball to when they’re running well. You have to have a guy that is kind of a change of pace and a guy that can play any down but is a change of pace and is a different type of runner and threat out of the backfield.”
Robinson, for now, will be the Commanders’ change of pace. In camp, coaches have used him in short yardage situations like near the goal line. But they’ve also given him occasional reps with the starters beyond that, even after Gibson healed from a hamstring injury.
Robinson’s back is no longer against the wall. But he’ll still plow forward anyway.
“I’m going to fight until the end,” Robinson said. “I don’t really care who I’m up against. I’ll fight until I can’t no more.”