ARLINGTON, Texas — After telling the story, in an extremely rough estimation, about 1,000 times, Texas Longhorns redshirt junior nose tackle Keondre Coburn admits that he probably needs to change how he tells it.
On this particular day — last Thursday at Big 12 Media Days — the charismatic anchor of the Longhorns defense is sticking with the usual version.
Coburn was working against sophomore running back Bijan Robinson in practice and threw all of his 350 or so pounds at the 6’0, 215-pound back. “I hit him with all my power and I thought he was down,” Coburn tells the assembled media. But when he got up to celebrate, he realized that Robinson was still running 20 yards down the field.
Some six minutes later, as Coburn recounts the story a second time, he calls Robinson an “alien” and notes that he needs to make it seem like he tripped on the play the next time he tells it.
“For some reason, he’s got the best balance in the world I’ve ever seen,” Coburn says of his teammate.
Against Kansas State last fall, Robinson flashed that elite contact balance coming out of halftime. On his preferred running play, outside zone, Robinson absorbed a hit breaking through traffic, used his off arm to steady himself, then blasted into the open field for a demoralizing 75-yard touchdown run. Despite nearly losing his balance, he barely seemed to break stride on the play.
Otherwordly stuff, indeed.
Since the difficult learning experience, Coburn tries to make sure that he pulls off one of Robinson’s shoes to make sure he’s down.
Robinson’s contact balance isn’t the only elite trait for the Arizona product, who broke out late last season and capped his promising freshman campaign by earning Alamo Bowl Offensive MVP honors after rushing for 183 yards and a touchdown on only 10 carries against Colorado while adding two receiving touchdowns on two receptions that went for 37 yards. With runs of 50 yards and 66 yards, Robinson broke the Big 12 records for yards per carry in a bowl game (18.3 ypc).
The No. 5 jersey number that Robinson wears is in honor of his childhood idol, former USC star Reggie Bush, who played for new Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian with the Trojans. At least in one area, Sarkisian seems a remarkable similarity between the two players.
“I think the biggest thing Bijan resembles to Reggie Bush is the one-cut ability,” Sarkisian said. “I hadn’t seen that for quite some time — the ability to make that full speed violent one cut, not lose top speed and get vertical and Bijan has that. When you see it on tape it’s one thing. To see it on the ground-field level is another, and I saw it every day throughout spring balls like, ‘Wow this is impressive.’”
Robinson provided a glimpse of that ability in the Orange-White game, scoring a touchdown in a short-yardage situation even though multiple defenders appeared to have him corralled.
“Wow that’s really impressive to be at top speed, put his foot in the ground, and get vertical and make a guy miss,” Sarkisian remembers thinking.
“That’s something that Reggie made famous and Bijan’s got a lot of those similar traits to his game.”
For Robinson, it’s all about bringing the same type of electricity to the game that Bush did — bringing people off their seats every time he touches the ball in anticipation of what he might do.
Coming off of four seasons during which departed quarterback Sam Ehlinger served as the focal point for Tom Herman’s Texas offenses, it’s now time for Robinson to take over as the centerpiece.
“We believe in the play-action pass. We believe in the RPO. Those two things work a lot better when you have to feel like you have to defend the run,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said in Arlington. “And there’s a mindset there, I think from a team’s mentality, to know that they have a guy back there that is going to carry the football for us, that’s going to hold onto the football for us, that’s going to score touchdown for us, get first downs to finish games, things of that nature, and Bijan definitely has all the physical traits to do it. I think he has the mental traits to do it.”
To put it succinctly, Sarkisian plans on doing what Herman and former offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich declined to do at times late last season — feed Robinson the ball.
In the defining game of Herman’s tenure, the mismanaged 23-20 loss to Iowa State, Robinson received nine early carries as Texas raced out to a 10-0 lead before the midway point of the first quarter, then received only seven carries over the game’s final 50-plus minutes.
When Robinson did get the ball over the final four contests as the game started to slow down for him, the Longhorns were extremely productive, scoring 66 points on the 14 drives when Robinson received multiple touches. For perspective, that 4.71 points per drive average would have easily led the country had the Texas offense performed at that pace all season. Instead, Robinson went 24 drives over those four games without a single touch.
Throughout the offseason, Sarkisian has mentioned multiple times his career-long track record of maximizing his best running backs. And the numbers speak for themselves.
Steve Sarkisian’s leading rushers
So Sarkisian has spent time talking to Robinson about the importance of ensuring his conditioning level can handle the biggest workload of his career — at Salpointe Catholic in Tucson, Robinson never really had over 20 carries per game.
“I’ll do whatever I can to help the team, whether it’s 25 carries, whether it’s 10 carries, you’ve just got to be productive on everything that you do get, and I’m just ready for anything that comes physically and mentally,” Robinson said.
Sarkisian doesn’t just plan on using Robinson more frequently — the sophomore will also receive more targets in the passing game and should benefit from a more diverse running game.
“There’s been so many plays that Coach Sark has implemented into the offense and I’m just really excited for everything that he’s bringing to the table,” Robinson said.
As Robinson learns under position coach Stan Drayton, he’s still working on reading second- and third-level defenders to set them up for his moves in the open field, but he’s already shown his explosiveness, his contact balance, and his one-cut ability.
Off the field, Sarkisian raves about Robinson’s character.
“He’s a better human being than he is a football player, and that’s saying a lot because he’s a heck of a football player, but he’s a tremendous leader, a tremendous teammate, he’s unbelievable for our community,” Sarkisian said.
“He’s just got that it factor, and it’s not a sometime thing for him and it’s not a show — that is exactly who he is deep down in his soul. Really proud of him and all that he’s accomplished up into this point of his life, but I think he’s even got better days ahead of him.”
As a potential Heisman contender, Robinson is ready to take the next step as the face of the program and centerpiece of Sarkisian’s offense.