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Texas run game moving beyond offensive dependence on quarterbacks

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Under Tom Herman, the run game flowed through Sam Ehlinger, but that will change with the new play caller.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Texas vs Colorado Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Any causal observer of the Texas Longhorns over the last three seasons could see that the offense seemingly began and ended with Sam Ehlinger, especially when Texas needed to get yardage on the ground.

Since taking over as the full-time starter in 2018, Ehlinger has accounted for more than 25 percent of the Texas rushing plays in each season, led by his 29 percent in 2019 — fifth among all quarterbacks in the country. In that same span, Ehlinger accounted for 31 of the Longhorns’ 70 total rushing touchdowns and led the team in rushing attempts in his final two seasons.

Don’t expect to see a repeat performance in 2021.

“I don’t think overnight I’m going to a quarterback-run system,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said following the first Texas scrimmage. “Our runners need to find a way to get the tough yards when it’s needed.”

Over the last two seasons calling the Alabama offense, Sarkisian let his offense flow through his All-American running back Najee Harris. In 2020, Harris was used on more than 34 percent of all of Alabama’s running plays, the sixth-highest total in the country, averaging 19.3 carries per game en route to a Doak Walker Award-winning season.

With the 2021 Longhorns, don’t expect to see a solo workhorse in the new system. On multiple occasions, Sarkisian has praised the talent and work ethic of both Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson.

“We’re in a unique situation. Bijan, coming off of the year he had last year is a really good football player,” Sarkisian said. “Another guy who falls into that category is Roschon. He’s worked really hard in the weight room, he’s practicing really hard, and he went out and had a good day today.”

Schematically, Sarkisian has already proven his willingness to spread the carries around between running backs, even when he has a back he could rely on every down.

During the award-winning year for Harris at Alabama, Sarkisian still managed to give nearly 20 percent of the run play usage to No. 2 runner Brian Robinson Jr. With the tandem of backs Texas boasts, it’s possible to see the Longhorns with a more even split of carries, with the coaching staff hopefully riding the hot hand during the game rather than rotating backs for the sake of rotating them.

Regardless of the split of carries, look for Texas to work through the run, to both establish the offensive game plan and the identity of the team itself.

“The running back frames the identity of your football team. We pride ourselves on being a physical football team and being a mentally tough football team,” Sarkisian said. “The running back of embodies that with our ability to run it, get the tough yards, and score in the low red zone and convert on third down.”