In the 16 years that Nick Saban has led the University of Alabama's football program, the Crimson Tide has been a team that churns out NFL talent, from Derrick Henry and Julio Jones to Jonathan Allen and dozens more. Each has had success in their own way, but Saban has noticed one trait that they all share: perseverance.
If there was a list of requirements to make it at the professional level, Brian Robinson Jr. could check that box.
"He had to work hard to earn it," Saban said of Robinson.
In the five years that he played for Alabama, Robinson was only a full-time starter during his redshirt senior season. It's not as common as it used to be, with college players electing to transfer if they don't get the playing time they believe they deserve. That was not the way Robinson chose to approach things; he decided to wait for his chance, and because of that patience, he was able to reach his full potential.
It's not that Saban and the Alabama coaching staff didn't see potential in Robinson when they offered him a scholarship. As a four-star recruit who grew up in Tuscaloosa, he was a hometown kid who had made waves as the state's top running back. He put up strong numbers during his senior year of high school, accounting for 1,292 total yards and 20 touchdowns.
The hold-up in his opportunities with the Crimson Tide came from the fact that the team has a long history of bringing in the best running backs in the country. That was the case during the first four years of Robinson's time with the program. Damien Harris was Alabama's lead back from 2015-17, and after he was drafted by the New England Patriots, Najee Harris took his plays for the next three seasons.
Waiting your turn is part of the experience at Alabama.
"That's the thing that we really sell our guys on here," Saban said. "We've got a lot of good players, but the competition makes you better. I think that's something that a lot of guys learn, but when they learn it, they take pride in performance and that brings out the best in them."
That was something that Robinson bought into from the beginning. Like every player, Robinson wanted to play more, and from the time he got his first carry in 2017 against Vanderbilt, he made the most of his opportunities. He only had 24 rushing attempts that year, but he averaged 6.9 yards and scored two touchdowns.
The following year, his number of carries increased to 63, and Robinson responded to that boost in opportunity by rushing for 272 yards and two more touchdowns. The year after that, he amassed 441 yards and five touchdowns on 96 carries.
The reason for the gradual expansion in Robinson's role comes from how much his coaches noticed his persistence, perseverance and competitive drive even though he wasn't the starter. It's not an approach that every player takes. Some, Saban said, get frustrated with their playing time and aren't ready when there's an injury and they're put into the lineup.
"They didn't have success and they didn't create value for themselves. But when you're a guy like B-Rob was here...you're setting the example of doing the things you need to do to prepare yourself to take advantage of the opportunity when you get it."
So, when Robinson did finally get to be at the top of the depth chart at the start of the 2021 season, he was ready for the moment because of the work he had done in previous years. He rushed for 1,343 yards and 14 touchdowns as a redshirt senior, averaging five yards per carry while helping Alabama advance to the National Championship. Saban would probably say that all 12 of Alabama's wins that season were team victories, which is something a successful head coach should say, but there were several games where Robinson was the focal point on offense.
Check out the top photos from Brian Robinson Jr.'s 2023 season so far. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
Alabama's home matchup against Ole Miss that season saw Robinson rush for 171 yards and four touchdowns. Both numbers were career-highs, and he accounted for 40% of the Crimson Tide's 451 total yards in the 42-21 win. Later that month, he had 107 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a convincing 52-24 win over Tennessee.
And while he didn't score in Alabama's 27-6 win over Cincinnati in the College Football Playoff, he did set the tone with 204 yards on 26 carries. The best part was Robinson did all that without changing much about who he was as a player.
"I think the thing I admire about him most is his toughness and his tenacity as a player and a competitor," Saban said. "He is hard to tackle, and I don't think people wanted to tackle him. And that's something I have a tremendous amount of respect for."
Robinson's toughness, combined with his perseverance, was why Saban wasn't surprised last year when he heard that Robinson was back in the lineup for Commanders so quickly, just over a month after being shot in Washington, D.C.
"Obstacles create opportunities sometimes, to be able to overcome adversity, work through it, be able to stay positive," Saban said. "I don't think anybody can be a great competitor if they can't overcome adversity. And I think the way B-Rob handled all that, worked his way back and got back in the lineup as soon as possible, I think he showed a tremendous amount of maturity in being able to overcome that adversity.
"That's the guy I know," Saban added.
It also doesn't surprise Saban that Robinson has had such a strong start to what will hopefully be a long professional career.
"He was willing to put in and do the things he had to do to have a great senior season," Saban said, "and I think that's what gave him an opportunity to play in the NFL."