On January 8 — just a week after the team’s Citrus Bowl victory over Auburn — Northwestern added former Kansas wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. via the transfer portal.
Robinson chose the Jayhawks in 2018 after starting his collegiate career at El Camino College in Torrance, California, as it was the only Power Five offer the three-star recruit had at the time.
After a promising initial season in Lawrence, Robinson absolutely burst onto the scene in his junior year, posting a gaudy 45 receptions for 727 yards and eight receiving touchdowns—the latter of which are tied for fourth most by a Jayhawk in a single season.
However, Robinson struggled to build off of his standout 2019 campaign in a COVID-19-shortened 2020, playing in just three games and posting just two catches due to injuries.
Given that Bryce Kirtz’ 67 receiving yards last season are the most returning for the Wildcats, Pat Fitzgerald will undoubtedly look to the graduate transfer Robinson to fill the holes left by Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Riley Lees and Kyric McGowan.
What traits does Robinson offer to contribute to NU’s inexperienced offense? Let’s look on the tape to find out.
Excellent Route Runner
Between watching Robinson’s 2019 and 2020, something that immediately jumped out was his agility. Robinson complements his quickness with silky smooth cuts and fluid movements.
Though he caught just two passes a year ago, his first in 2020 against Baylor demonstrates his aptitude for running routes. In this clip, Robinson charges around five yards upfield and fakes an inside release before utilizing stutter steps and a hand swat to get to the outside, where he makes a fine play.
Turning the clock back to 2019 demonstrates that Robinson was just as fine-tuned in his routes.
In the play below, Robinson (top of the screen) isn’t targeted, but it looks as if he’s gliding on a five-yard out route.
In fact, Robinson employed the same route, although slightly less polished, against Texas and their team’s high level talent. Lined up against defensive back Brandon Jones — who was a third-round draft pick in 2020 — Robinson deftly maneuvered toward the sideline by turning his hips to beat man coverage and picking up a first down.
Without a doubt, route running is something that distinguishes Robinson and should give him an inside track to becoming a key cog in Mike Bajakian’s offense. Consider this an amuse-bouche of Robinson’s graceful strides, as they’re evident in most of the following videos.
What does pairing elite route running and speed generate? A boatload of explosive touches.
Against the West Virginia Mountaineers (and new teammate Jeffery Pooler Jr.) in 2020, Robinson accrued his second and final reception on the year. Nonetheless, it reflects how he’s able to turn a minor gain into an eye-popping gain.
On a bubble screen, Robinson catches the pass around two yards behind the line of scrimmage. Unfazed, Robinson plants his foot into the ground and cuts upfield before a sensational juke that stuns two defenders and yields a new set of downs.
Robinson frequently uses his wheels to gain extra steps on defensive backs and linebackers. Against Oklahoma in 2019, he simply blows by his opponent on a fade route by implementing a stack release and an ever-so-slight push.
When the Jayhawks dueled with the Texas Tech Red Raiders two years ago, Robinson posted career highs in receiving yards at 186 and made multiple plays worthy of scrutiny — perhaps even catching the attention of TTU alum Patrick Mahomes.
Here, Robinson displays a terrific feel for zone coverage on a crossing route as he sits perfectly between the linebackers and secondary before igniting the burners and bursting in for six.
And finally, Robinson showcases his full repertoire on this post route that was nearly a touchdown, displaying quickness, elusiveness and home run ability.
It’s no surprise that Robinson accumulated a prodigious 16.2 yards per reception in 2019, as he provides a potent spark and can flip the switch of a game in the blink of an eye.
Security Blanket for QBs
Robinson is far more than a shifty receiver that cuts and breaks effortlessly, also having a knack for retaining possession amid pad-cracking hits.
On this third down, Robinson runs a bit of a delayed release and secures the ball before absorbing an absolute lick in which the defender plunges him into the turf.
Moreover, Robinson has a sizeable catch radius that undoubtedly helps his quarterbacks. In this case, the 5-foot-10 wideout snags a pass behind him despite needing to contort while absorbing a hit stick.
Returning to Robinson vs. Jones once more, the former maintains control of the ball on an in route as he’s twirled like a ballerina by the current Miami Dolphins safety.
Although he’s smaller in stature, Robinson is fundamentally a reliable option over the middle that QBs can trust in tight windows and big moments. NU fans can only hope that such an attribute helps Robinson build chemistry with presumptive starting signal-caller Ryan Hilinski.
Solid, Physical Blocker
If you were under the impression that Robinson only stars in the receiving game, you’re sadly mistaken.
Admittedly, Robinson did have a few plays in which he made only a decent or even subpar block, like the one below in which he doesn’t help his quarterback whatsoever.
Holistically, though, Robinson is a tenacious and rugged blocker who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.
In this instance, Robinson exhibits patience as he waits for the opportune moment to make contact with his opponent. When he finally does, he drives upward toward the pads and marvelously seals the edge for star running back Pooka Williams.
Further, on a screen to Williams toward his sideline, Robinson initiates with his defender and continually pushes forward, clearing space so much that he literally forces him off the screen.
Robinson’s blocking acumen culminates in this run play in which he virulently levels his opposition. Be warned that watching this awe-inspiring play might lead to a visceral audible reaction.
Generally, receivers use pass-catching skills to make up for what they lack blocking-wise. I’m not so sure that’s the case with Robinson, who seems to grant the same amount of effor — and obtain a parallel amount of success — in both facets of the game.
When the ‘Cats added Robinson, few viewed it as any sort of earth-shattering move. But with NU’s top four receivers having departed, Robinson will be in the limelight all season.
Simply put, Robinson was one of the premier receivers in the Big 12 in 2019, as he ranked seventh in the conference in receiving yards. That’s not an accident. Robinson’s lateral quickness, agility, strong hands and blocking success are a recipe for dominance.
Robinson has a clear lane to leaving his fingerprints all over Northwestern’s 2021 season. I would be fairly surprised if he doesn’t emerge as the team’s WR1 by the end of the year. The grad transfer offers Bajakian and Fitzgerald umpteen ways to get him the football, as he can also be put in motion and/or field kickoffs.
The elephant in the room for Robinson is his injury history, which effectively negated his senior season. It should be noted, though, that Robinson partook in all 24 games that KU played during his sophomore and junior years.
Playing in the defense-driven, hard-fought Big Ten is vastly different than the offense-happy Big 12, with opposing All-B1G corners such Cam Taylor-Britt (Nebraska) and Tre Avery (Rutgers) looming as major tests for Robinson in 2021.
But if the former Kansas wideout can make the adjustment and remain healthy, the conference — and the nation — should be on high alert.
A bonafide diamond in the rough who evokes shades of Antonio Brown and Steve Smith Sr., Robinson is capable of putting together an electric season and could even become the first receiver to be drafted out of Evanston since Sam Simmons in 2002.