‘I thought it was over’: Sacramento State product finds new football life in the CFL

Sacramento State running back Jordan Robinson tries to evade a UC Davis defender during the Causeway Classic on Nov. 19, 2016, in Davis. Robinson is now with the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL.
Sacramento State running back Jordan Robinson tries to evade a UC Davis defender during the Causeway Classic on Nov. 19, 2016, in Davis. Robinson is now with the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL. Special to The Sacramento Bee

Nearly two years after playing in his last football game, former Sacramento State standout Jordan Robinson scored a rushing touchdown during his first preseason contest with the Edmonton Eskimos.

Robinson, who played four seasons at Sacramento State from 2013-16, began his Canadian Football League career with a 37-yard touchdown run on May 27 and a 98-yard punt return score on June 1 during the first two weeks of the preseason.

“There are physical guys out here, there are big guys and there are guys that are going to be faster than you at all times, so you just have to work,” Robinson said, describing his mentality toward the CFL. “But it’s a little bit easier for me because I’m a shiftier and speedier guy and there’s a lot more field to work with, but I’m still learning as I go, so I’m just trying to figure it all out.”

Robinson, who ended his collegiate career with the fourth-most career rushing yards (2,823) in Sacramento State history, was stuck trying to figure his life out after he graduated from college. He’d been playing football for nearly a decade, but that lifestyle came to a standstill as he was back home in Chino Hills asking himself, “What’s next?”

“I wanted to pursue football when I came out of college, but unfortunately no calls came around when the draft came from NFL or CFL teams, so I was basically out for a whole year after I graduated,” Robinson said. “I was just training, staying busy and honestly I didn’t know how I was going to get my foot back in the door.”

The 5-foot-11 running back then dipped his toes into coaching football after a call from Paul Peterson, his former Sacramento State offensive coordinator.

Peterson, who is entering his second season as head coach at Snow College, asked Robinson to be his running backs coach at the junior college in Ephraim, Utah, and the 23-year-old immediately quit his job as a load counter for a truck company that transports dirt to and from construction sites.

About two months later, Peterson told him the Eskimos were hosting an open tryout at UNLV and that he should go since spring ball had ended. Robinson was hungry to get back on the field, so he drove more than 300 miles and paid the $100 tryout fee on April 21 in hopes of earning an invite to minicamp.

After performing standard drills and running the 40-yard dash, Robinson worked with Edmonton’s running backs coach, Tim Prinsen. The sixth-year coach, who played four seasons at North Dakota and five with the Eskimos, said he was impressed immediately.

“He stood out right away with just his movements and athleticism, and then we were doing one-on-ones with the linebackers and no one could cover him and I think it got a little boring for him, so he went over and asked if he could run some routes with the receivers,” Prinsen said. “From what I understand, he did very well over there and that’s where he caught the eye of our head coach and offensive coordinator.”

Despite an impressive showing, Prinsen said that Robinson didn’t receive an invite to the team’s minicamp due to a lack of roster spots available on the team.

“It was basically a month that I didn’t hear anything from (Edmonton), so I thought it was over for me because they already had their draft and they already had their camp started,” Robinson said.

However, Robinson picked up a phone call from a Canadian area code while at a graduation party for a former Sacramento State teammate. It was from the Eskimos, confirming that they would sign him as a free agent on May 21.

Robinson has officially found himself on the Eskimos after an impressive preseason that showed off his speed and elusiveness as a running back and returner. He also scored his first official touchdown in the CFL after a 30-yard screen pass against the Toronto Argonauts on July 13.

Through five games, the rookie has established himself as the second-string running back and the team’s starting kick and punt returner due to injuries. Robinson has accumulated 447 all-purpose yards.

However, Edmonton’s offense has relied primarily on veterans CJ Gable and Mike Reilly, so Robinson has just 17 rushing yards on four carries.

“Everybody thinks there’s a huge drop off in talent in the CFL, but there’s really not,” Robinson said. “It’s a really competitive league, so if you don’t come correct out here, you’ll definitely get exposed.”

An area where most incoming running backs get exposed within the Eskimos’ complex offense is in pass protection, Prinsen said.

“That’s really what stood out for him. He figured out who to block and doesn’t mentally bust there … he’s not afraid to stick his nose in there and he does a good job with that,” Prinsen said. “That was kind of the missing piece that we needed to see from him and he showed that early on, so his athleticism with the ball speaks for itself, but he’s not afraid to protect, which is probably the most important thing that we do.”

Robinson, who signed a two-year rookie contract with Edmonton and makes the league minimum, said he’s willing to do whatever it takes to help his team and he’s thankful to be competing again.

“I was out for a whole year and it’s a humbling experience coming from college and then going back home and sitting on your couch not doing anything,” Robinson said. “You’re sitting there just asking yourself, ‘What’s next?’”

Next up for Robinson and the Eskimos is a match up against the Montreal Alouettes on Thursday at 4:30 p.m.