As new Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian works through his first spring on the Forty Acres, he and an almost entirely new staff will be tasked with identifying their top talent and filling various voids with said talent.
That largely isn’t the case for one of the lone holdovers from Tom Herman’s staff, running backs coach Stan Drayton. Although junior Keaontay Ingram elected to transfer out of the program to USC after injuries ultimately limited his upside in Austin, Drayton returns two top talents from his position room and should enjoy respectable depth beyond that.
As spring practice begins to heat up following an early COVID-19 pause, sophomore Bijan Robinson enters his first spring with the Longhorns as the clear favorite to headline the position. Robinson arrived in Austin as the top-ranked running back in the 2020 class and he left almost no room for doubt of his star potential by season’s end.
After gradually climbing the depth chart from third string to starter, displaying flashes of his brilliance along the way, Robinson capped his freshman campaign with a sensational two-game showing, totaling 443 yards and, far more impressively, averaging 18.5 yards per touch and a touchdown every four touches.
In doing so, considering how Texas’ offense thrived when he was involved, Robinson left little doubt that he should be the focal point of the offense in 2021.
Throughout the final four games of the season — during which time the game seemingly slowed down for Robinson and he established a clear sense of comfort and confidence — Texas scored 66 points on the 14 drives when Robinson received multiple touches. For perspective, that 4.71 points per drive average in such situations would have quite easily led the entire nation if the Texas offense performed at this pace all season. But as was clearly evident during games, Texas didn’t utilize Robinson nearly as much as it probably should have during this four-game stretch. Notably overshadowing those 14 drives with multiple touches were the 37 drives during which Robinson received no more than a single touch, including 24 drives without a touch at all.
The result? Only 88 points on 37 drives, which is good (or bad) for an underwhelming 2.38 points per drive that would have ranked outside of the top 50 nationally throughout the course of the season. And even those 88 points were inflated by Robinson’s impact, to include his one-play, 75-yard touchdown run against Kansas State and his 66-yard sprint against Colorado to set up Thompson’s first touchdown pitch the following play.
Simply put, Texas unleashed what statistically resembled the nation’s most potent offense when Robinson was heavily involved, but looked the part of the mediocre unit when he wasn’t.
Fortunately for Robinson, who averaged only 9.6 carries per contest last season, a significant workload shouldn’t be an issue under Sarkisian’s direction.
When asked by Longhorn Network’s Lowell Galindo if he has any problem giving a running back 20-plus carries, Sark answered, “Not at all. I do think there is something to be said when you do give a ball to a guy 20 times a game and your team knows it and your offensive line knows it. There’s an identity that gets instilled in your team.”
There’s certainly some encouraging evidence to that end, and more notably, significant rushing production that’s come from instilling that identity.
Dating back to his debut campaign as Washington’s head coach in 2009, Sarkisian’s offenses have helped produce seven consecutive 1,100-yard rushers, with Chris Polk (Washington), Bishop Sankey (Washington), Javorius Allen (USC) and Najee Harris (Alabama) collectively averaging 1,365 yards per season.
Robinson undeniably boasts the raw talent to become the latest in that lineage, and if history is any indication, he certainly won’t be without opportunities — Sarkisian’s feature backs have averaged 245.5 attempts per season throughout this stretch.
The question to answer this spring — is Robinson ready to become that bell-cow back?
Steve Sarkisian’s leading rushers
On the other hand, the challenge at hand for junior Roschon Johnson this spring is to showcase why he’s capable of becoming the second head of a monster in the backfield, and not simply Bijan’s backup as Robinson gains hype as a preseason Heisman candidate. Throughout his first two seasons at Texas, Johnson has primarily served in a reserve role behind Ingram and Robinson, but he’s proven plenty capable of impressive showings of his own. The steady productivity has certainly been there as well, with Johnson totaling 1,067 yards and 13 touchdowns on 203 carries, good for 5.3 yards per carry.
Not to mention, he’s done so after arriving in Austin in 2019 as a quarterback before injuries in the Texas backfield prompted a preseason position change — a change to which he’s adapted notably well, though he admittedly still has room to grow before his new role feels natural.
“I can’t really say [playing running back] feels totally natural,” Johnson told 247Sports’ Chip Brown. “When anybody asks me, I say, ‘I’m a football player.’ I feel like I can do anything I’m asked to do. But at the same time, I’m still learning a lot of things about the position and trying to adjust.
“After playing quarterback pretty much my whole life and then switching, it’s gonna take a few years to really get adjusted,” Johnson added. “But I’m gradually learning everything.”
The position being a bit unnatural to him is noticeable at times, but more apparent is that he’s certainly created a home in the backfield. Beyond the fact that he tallied 1,000-plus yards and 13 touchdowns in a Tom Herman offense that oftentimes abandoned the ground game entirely, Johnson’s proven to be a hard-nosed, no-nonsense runner who gets upfield and sheds tackles — often multiple tackles — more times than not.
If Robinson is going to be the dynamic, elusive back with elite balance and big-play potential on each touch, Johnson can become in-between the tackles bruiser and an ideal balance in a backfield that should be the offense’s strength.
But for Johnson, who understands that there’s development ahead of him, can he show enough polish in his third year at the position to demand carries if Robinson does, in fact, become a true feature back?
Barring injuries and any blowout victories, the reality is there likely won’t be many carries available beyond what Robinson and Johnson receive. But if those opportunities do arise, Sarkisian and Drayton can turn to some relatively experienced options in senior Daniel Young and graduate transfer Gabriel Watson.
Of course, Young gradually fell from the rotation following his respectable freshman campaign in 2017, during which he led the Longhorns running back room with 81 carries for 373 yards and three scores. Since then, Young’s received only 58 carries for 216 yards and two touchdowns, and that was before he opted out in 2020.
If his first two seasons in Austin are any indication, he can possibly become a late-game option, especially in short-yardage situations.
The same can be said for Watson, who amassed 1,957 yards and a DII-best 26 touchdowns in 2018 en route to earning honors as a finalist for the DII’s version of the Heisman Trophy — the Harlon Hill Award.
Not to mention, in the coming months, this group will be joined by four-star signee Jonathan Brooks, who looks the part of the steal of the class after scampering for 3,530 yards and 62 touchdowns as a senior. Brooks finished his high school career with 6,637 rushing yards and 112 touchdowns, and added another 1,090 receiving yards and four more scores. Though highly-productive, Brooks was a high-usage back, especially the last two seasons, so he’ll be entering an ideal situation where he can preserve some of the tread on his tires and develop behind Robinson and Johnson.
If Robinson, who Bleacher Report projects to become the second-best running back in the country in 2021, develops as expected and makes a habit of his late-season efforts, Texas will have a star to build the offense around as the program moves on from Sam Ehlinger. And if Johnson can continue to develop in his third season at the position, Drayton and the Longhorns should boast one of the best backfields in the nation next season.
But with development being such a key factor, especially as they integrate into a new offensive system, the steps the running backs take this spring will be critical for what they can become by September.