When the Steelers selected inside linebacker Mark Robinson in the seventh round of the 2022 draft, they knew it was going to take some time for him to develop. Robinson played just one season of major-college football at Ole Miss, and that was the only time he ever played inside linebacker.
Robinson’s previous college experience was at running back at Southeast Missouri State and Presbyterian, two smaller programs in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).
Robinson showed enough promise in training camp for the Steelers to keep him on their 53-man roster, but he only dressed for four games and played just 44 defensive snaps, all of them in the final month of the season. There were a lot of ups and downs associated with being inactive on game days, but when Robinson finally got a taste of what it was like to play in the NFL, he came to the realization that his long and windy road to the league was worth it.
“It’s a dream worth living,” Robinson said Tuesday afternoon following practice at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Everything you imagined, everything you dreamed of, it’s that.”
Robinson’s emergence late in the season only made him hungrier, and he’s trying to carve out a spot again on this year’s team. Myles Jack, Devin Bush and Robert Spillane started 32 games among them at inside linebacker last season, and the Steelers didn’t bring any of them back.
Spillane and Bush signed elsewhere in free agency and Jack remains a free agent after the Steelers cut him with a year remaining on his contract.
Robinson is the only inside linebacker on last year’s team who remains with the Steelers, and he’s trying to make an impression this spring. In Tuesday morning’s practice, he had his teammates in a frenzy after he stepped in front of a Kenny Pickett pass and returned it for a touchdown.
“It was a ball-aware play,” Robinson said. “It came to me, and I took advantage of the opportunity.”
Robinson is getting plenty of reps this spring. Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts were signed in free agency to take over as the starting duo inside, but Holcomb is recovering from offseason foot surgery and isn’t participating much on the field in offseason training activities (OTAs).
That’s given Robinson a chance to run with the starters in the first four practices of the spring.
“Opportunities come and you have to run with them,” Robinson said. “Any time we get a rep on that grass, it’s gold and I treat it as such. And I plan to keep doing so.”
Robinson started the final two games of the season against the Ravens and the Browns and acquitted himself well. He made nine tackles and proved to be a good run-stopper against two of the better running teams in the league.
The Steelers are a bit thin at inside linebacker. Other than Holcomb, Roberts and Robinson, the only other inside linebackers on the roster are Chappelle Russell and Tanner Muse.
Muse is likely to be used mostly on special teams, while Russell spent last season on the practice squad after playing in 27 games for the Buccaneers and Jaguars in 2020 and 2021.
The Steelers brought veteran Kwon Alexander in for a visit earlier this month, but he left without signing a contract. A veteran option remains a possibility as the top backup behind Holcomb and Roberts, but Robinson might just do enough this spring to convince the coaches he’s ready for the job.
“I don’t know what they have planned,” Robinson said. “Whatever reps I get, I’m all in. That’s my mindset.”