For roughly nine months now, few conversations surrounding Texas Longhorns football have been as consistent as debates around the touches for running back Bijan Robinson, who never received more than 17 touches in a game during his freshman season.
So it was no surprise on Thursday when new head coach Steve Sarkisian fielded a question about Robinson’s touches early in his press conference to preview preseason camp.
Sarkisian said that he expects Robinson to average 20 touches per game and could have as many as 30 or as few as 13 or 15, depending on how each game develops.
“If we can put a ballpark in that 18 to 22 range, roughly 20 touches a game, that puts us in a good position, I think, as a team, as an offense, and that still allows opportunity for other players to do what they want to do and what they can do to help our team,” Sarkisian said.
With the return of junior Roschon Johnson, a steady and dependable team leader who has emerged as a powerful runner, and the addition of Alabama transfer Keilan Robinson, a speedy all-purpose back, Texas has plenty of quality depth at the position.
Under former head coach Tom Herman, running backs coach Stan Drayton preferred to use available depth by substituting players frequently in an effort to keep them fresh and healthy. Since Sarkisian retained Drayton, questions have swirled throughout the offseason about how much those substitution patterns will actually change this season.
Sarkisian teased a more persistent approach based on his experience as a play caller — even if a defense can stop a good runner for as many as eight or nine carries, it only takes one or two good carries to put together a big-time performance. As a freshman, Robinson certainly flashed that type of ability with a handful of explosive runs late in the season, including a 75-yard run against Kansas State and a 66-yard run against Colorado in the Alamo Bowl.
The more conservative approach adopted by Drayton in the past has some significant drawbacks, as his running backs struggled to get enough carries to find a rhythm and get a strong feel for how defenses were playing Texas.
“You have to give those really good players those opportunities to feel runs, to assess it, maybe it’s a different scheme they’re playing on defense and we prepared for,” Sarkisian said.
And although Sarkisian did mention some specific numbers in terms of touches for Robinson, he’s taking a more holistic approach to the subject.
“I think opportunity is a realistic approach,” Sarkisian said. “When I think about Bijan, I don’t necessarily put a number on it — it’s is he getting enough opportunities based on the flow of the game and the personality that game is taking on, so we’d be remiss not to get him the ball and we’ll be sure that he gets the the necessary touches to make him the best player he can be.”
In high school, Robinson’s teams as Salpointe Catholic in Tucson were typically so dominant that he rarely needed more than 20 touches per game. So the biggest challenge for Robinson is ensuring that he’s physically prepared for the heaviest workload of his football career. The schedule imposes another challenge — the Longhorns only have one bye week this season and it doesn’t come until after the seventh game.
For Sarkisian, it’s all about deciding when he’s willing to allow the defense to determine when Robinson gets the ball and when he wants to make sure that Robinson has enough touches to develop that necessary rhythm and feel for what defenses are doing.
Basing the offense around the run-pass options takes away some of that control for Sarkisian — opposing coordinators can take the ball out of Robinson’s hands by having the read defender give the Texas quarterback a pass read.
In those situations, Sarkisian may decide to take the read off those running plays to get Robinson the ball or dial up passing plays that feature the running back as the first read, like Railroad.
Robinson has some real skills as a receiver and could emerge as a more effective option than Najee Harris was for Sarkisian at Alabama. And Harris was highly effective, catching 70 passes for 729 yards and 11 touchdowns over his final two seasons with the Crimson Tide.
However Sarkisian decides to get Robinson the ball on a game-by-game basis, Robinson’s workload should more than double this season, as long as he can stay healthy.