With what amounts to two bye weeks in a row with the cancellation of Saturday’s road game against the Kansas Jayhawks, Texas Longhorns freshman running back Bijan Robinson could be a different player by the time the Longhorns host the Iowa State Cyclones in nine days.
Three weeks of practice represent a significant amount of time on the field for someone like Robinson, who arrived during the summer and experienced the abbreviated preseason camp.
In fact, the running game was a significant casualty of how head coach Tom Herman and his staff approached the season — because players had been away from campus for so long, Herman dialed back the physicality of practice to avoid injuries caused by the lack of high-level conditioning. It wasn’t until the bye week following the Oklahoma game that the staff felt comfortable working more run periods.
So the learning curve for Robinson was not as steep as it might have been during a normal season if he’d enrolled early. And there was also a sizable jump in competition level moving from a private school in southern Arizona to college football compared to a player making the transition from a school like Allen, Lake Travis, or Southlake Carroll.
On Wednesday, offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich addressed Robinson’s progression as a player coming off of his breakthrough 113-yard rushing performance against West Virginia that included a 54-yard run on the first play from scrimmage, by far the longest of his young career.
“How’s his progression? It’s come along steadily — that’s the word I would use,” Yurcich said. “It’s been steady improvement in his vision and seeing his keys. Being able to cut and sync up with the offensive line blocking has been most critical. And that takes time.”
With Robinson listed as the third-string running back on the depth chart to start the season, that likely meant limited time working with the first-team offensive line during preseason camp when the run periods were few and far between anyway.
“It’s not built in a day. And if we had spring ball and extra practices and more scrimmages, you probably would have seen it earlier,” Yurich said. “But it is what it is, and we’re here today, and there has been steady improvement with him and his production, and Coach Drayton has done a great job.”
Yurcich’s praise of Drayton and how he’s handled his most talented collegiate running back since coaching Ezekial Elliott at Ohio State even extended to the most controversial topic on offense — Drayton’s refusal to rely heavily on a single running back, no matter their production level.
“It’s not real complicated. Obviously, if a guy is heating up and feels the rhythm, you want to continue to get the ball in his hands — that’s not rocket science,” Yurcich said.
“But at the same time, I think Coach Drayton needs a lot of credit, because he’s managed it the whole way and when you have a young guy like that, and you play him too fast too early, when he’s not ready, you can disrupt the development.”
Robinson’s increase in carries has been relatively steady, picking up significantly after Robinson missed the TCU game due to the strained back he suffered during his ill-advised hurdle attempt. In the last three games, he’s had 12 carries, 13 carries, and 12 carries.
“So he’s done this before — this ain’t his first rodeo,” Yurcich said of Drayton. “So he’s been masterful at his management of that room. At the same time, we’ve got to continue to keep guys fresh and rotate. That’s important.”
Particularly in the games against Oklahoma State and West Virginia, there hasn’t been a lot of room for error. With only two experienced scholarship running backs available — Robinson and sophomore Roschon Johnson — using one too much, too early would leave only one fresh running back late in the game. Given the handful of injuries Johnson has suffered this season that have severely limited his effectiveness and his number of carries, that would not be a positive development for the Longhorns offense to have him as the only available fresh back in the fourth quarter.
And unlike the last five-star running back to sign with Texas, Johnathan Gray in 2012, Robinson doesn’t have the same level of experience handling a high number of carries. At Salpointe Catholic, Robinson only had six games in his career during which he carried the ball 20 or more times, with most of them coming in the playoffs. Gray, in comparison, had 10 just during his senior season.
Gray’s heavy workload likely contributed to his injuries at Texas, something that Robinson doesn’t have to worry about, but it’s possible that Drayton is bringing Robinson along slowly in part because he simply doesn’t have that level of game conditioning yet.
In addition to learning how to read defenses with the ball in his hands, Robinson has two other key areas for improvement.
One is ball security, an area in which he was really loose in high school and needs to continue to emphasize at Texas. Against West Virginia, Robinson fumbled for the first time in his career and it wasn’t difficult to see it coming with how he carried the ball in the open field on his game-opening run.
Fixing ball security issues is relatively simple, but improving in pass protection will take some time for the true freshman.
“With pass protection, I’ll use the word steady, and steady improvement. It’s not where it needs to be and it goes back to discipline,” Yurcich said.
“There’s vision when you get the ball in your hands — vision on the run — and there’s also vision pre-snap. Are you keying that free safety on a blitz? Are you keying the Mike? Where are your eyes to give you indicators of certain types of rotation that indicate certain types of blitzes? What’s the front? What’s the ID? So getting better. Steady is still the word I would use.”
One aspect of Robinson’s game does give the coaches confidence — his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. With nine catches for 105 yards on the season, Robinson hasn’t been a consistent threat as a pass catcher yet, but he was on the field and targeted for one of the game’s most important — a 35-yard catch and run that sealed the victory late in the fourth quarter.
“Bijan is very good out of the backfield,” Yurcich said. Clutch catch to finish the game in that last ballgame. He’s got really good hands, ball skills. He runs good routes when he’s asked to. He’s disciplined with that.”
Afforded so much time in between games, continued steady improvement will produce a more effective, well-rounded Robinson for the Iowa State game and the season’s final stretch. So even if Drayton’s substitution patterns don’t change, that’s still a heartening potential development for an offense that is lagging behind the defense in overall effectiveness.