Football: From Lawrence to Evanston: Northwestern’s Stephon Robinson Jr. turns a cut-short senior season into a top-notch graduate campaign.


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Stephon Robinson Jr. throws up the peace sign. The graduate wide receiver is a leader in the locker room and Northwestern’s leading receiver this season.

Lawrence Price, Assistant Sports Editor


On New Year’s Day, Northwestern capped off a historic 2020 campaign with a victory against Auburn in the 2021 Citrus Bowl.

The game marked the final hurrah for numerous players, including the senior wide receiver trio of Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Riley Lees and Kyric McGowan.

All three starters left Evanston, raising questions about the unit’s future. However, a Jan. 8 tweet captioned “Time to work” silenced those questions. In it, then-Kansas wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. donned a purple NU uniform with the word “Committed” planted at the top of the photograph.

Now, nine games into the 2021 season, Robinson Jr. has filled big shoes for the Wildcats’ passing attack. 

 “Steph has been absolutely outstanding,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Just really proud of him, great to have him a part of the program and look forward to a great and strong finish by him.”

Fitzgerald said he believes Robinson Jr. has played at an All-Big Ten level this season — and his claim is valid. 

After a breakout junior season at Kansas in which he corralled 45 catches for 727 yards, injury cut the Los Angeles native’s senior campaign short. But he found a new life in NU’s offense. 

Robinson Jr. currently has 35 catches for 489 yards and two touchdowns over eight contests. He’s on pace to finish with about 48 catches and 672 yards, likely adding his name into contention for postseason awards.  

“He’s an explosive player,” wide receivers coach Dennis Springer said. “He’s definitely somebody that you have to pay attention to, he’s definitely somebody that allows us to stretch the field vertically with his ability to make plays.”

 Springer said Robinson Jr.’s impact extends past his playmaking skills. He described the receiver as a leader powered by work ethic and buzzing confidence. The wide receiver room needed this energy after losing sophomore starting wide receiver Bryce Kirtz for the season to a non-contact injury.  

Losing a key offensive target like Kirtz forced defenses to focus their attention on Robinson Jr. But he’s hard to stop.​​ The wide receiver proceeded to post back-to-back 100-yard games against Nebraska and Rutgers —  the first time a Cats wideout achieved that mark since 2018.

“I made a lot of explosive plays down the field, so it gives us a chance to open up the offense,” Robinson Jr. said. “Sometimes even I can be a decoy in some situations to get a lot of our other playmakers the ball out in space.”

One of these playmakers is junior wide receiver Malik Washington. With Kirtz sidelined, the Lawrenceville, Georgia native became NU’s No. 2 wideout, racking up 426 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 34 catches.

 Washington complimented Robinson Jr.’s unselfish attitude and game experience. He said the graduate student has mentored not only him but also the other receivers and the locker room.  

“He’s somebody that takes people under their wing,” Washington said. “With the loss of Riley, Ramaud (and) Kyric last year, I think having an older guy in the room, somebody that has already done it before, somebody that has played in big games at Kansas, all he has done is be great for us.”

During the team’s matchup against Michigan, Robinson Jr.’s playmaking abilities were limited to one quarter after he suffered a lower-body injury. He was out the next week against Minnesota, which upset him. 

“It hurts when you’re not there to help your team,” Robinson Jr. said. “When I’m seeing stuff from the sideline and I’m hurt, I’m thinking in my head, ‘Oh I can make this play, I can do that’.”

The graduate transfer returned to his lead role against Iowa last week, posting five catches for 64 yards and three rushes for 37 yards. Fitzgerald expressed the team will need his explosive playmaking for the final regular-season stretch.  

NU’s (3-6, 1-5 Big Ten) matchup this weekend against No. 18 Wisconsin (6-3, 4-2) in Madison, Wisconsin, marks one of the team’s toughest defensive opponents of the season. The Badgers have given up the fewest passing yards per game in the Big Ten and allowed the fewest points per game in the conference to date in the season.

With potentially just three games left in the regular season and his college career, Robinson Jr. understands what’s on the line for NU and expects them to play its game and not Wisconsin’s.

“They’re one of the top defenses in the country, so we know we got to bring our A-game,” Robinson Jr. said. “We just have to attack them, you know, don’t play scared and just go up and make plays when the ball comes my way. Come down with it every single time, outrun them, out-physical them every play.”

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