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What bowl game opt outs mean for Texas

Three players will sit out of the Alamo Bowl to prepare for the 2023 NFL Draft.

NCAA Football: Texas at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Three Texas Longhorns players will opt out of the Alamo Bowl in order to prepare for the 2023 NFL Draftjunior running back Bijan Robinson, senior running back Roschon Johnson, and senior linebacker DeMarvion Overshown — according to reports from Inside Texas and Horns247 and later confirmed by each of the players.

With Texas beginning bowl preparation with its first practice on Dec. 9, the decisions represented the culmination of conversations between the players, Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian, and other stakeholders including their families.

“I think all those things, when you talk about the players, who’s playing, who’s not, I think those are all things we have to work ourselves through,” Sarkisian said last week. “Bijan has a lot of things to work himself through, like do I leave to go to the NFL? Do I not? Do I practice, do I not? Roschon, same thing.

“We work with our players kind of day to day, what do they need, what do they need from us to be the most productive players that they can be,” Sarkisian added. “Awesome human beings — these guys are unbelievable human beings — so we just try to support them the best we can. Bijan, he loves the University of Texas. It’s not something like, well, it’s kind of. No, he loves it. He loves this place. For him to decide, do I leave early to go to the NFL or not, I mean, that is a tough decision, that’s heavy on anybody, so we try to help him, support him the best we can.”

After Sarkisian arrived in San Antonio for the Alamo Bowl, he addressed the decisions.

“I understand it,” Sarkisian said. “I understand where Bijan’s coming from, where Roschon’s coming from, where DeMarvion’s coming from. It’s unfortunate because all three of those guys want to play, but I alsounderstand it. That’s the life of where we’re at.”

For each of those three players, the bottom line is that they’ve given everything possible to the Texas football program over the last three to five years, sticking it out through multiple assistant coaches, multiple coordinators, and a head coaching change in addition to dealing with the pandemic and the social justice movement of 2020.

More than that, they’ve each earned the opportunity to opt out by putting enough on film that the upside of producing in the Alamo Bowl against No. 12 Washington doesn’t come close to outweighing the negatives of suffering a short-term or long-term injury that would impact preparations for the NFL Draft.

Robinson departs after earning the 2022 Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back, becoming the fourth winner in school history while cementing his place in the pantheon of all-time great Texas running backs, an exclusive group with high entrance requirements. Whether Robinson is the third-best or fourth-best running back in school history is a subject for debate with credible arguments in both directions, but even the most critical assessment of Robinson’s time on the Forty Acres would be hard pressed to slot him any lower than fifth best.

Johnson departs after selflessly moving from quarterback in 2019 after injuries decimated the position and becoming one of the nation’s best backup running backs, first playing behind Keoantay Ingram and then Robinson. Over four seasons, Johnson tallied 2,190 rushing yards with 23 rushing touchdowns while serving as one of the team’s most consistent leaders and starring on multiple special teams units. Johnson’s diverse contributions in so many areas earned him the regard of Texas fans as an all-time great Longhorn.

Together, the 2022 season from Robinson and Johnson slots them as the No. 2 duo in school history, only 99 yards and one touchdown behind Earl Campbell and Ham Jones in 1977.

Overshown arrived as part of the historic 2018 defensive back recruiting class before moving to linebacker during the 2020 offseason with his toughness and sideline-to-sideline speed allowing him to quickly make an impact. After earning first-team All-Big 12 recognition in 2022, Overshown ends his Texas career with 248 tackles, 30.5 tackles for loss, 17 passes broken up, nine sacks, three interceptions, and three forced fumbles. And although Overshown’s leadership ability took longer to develop than that of Johnson, his big personality was always on display even if the transition from the small East Texas town of Arp to the big city of Austin wasn’t the most natural fit.

With the three standouts opting out, Texas will get an early look into the 2023 program in the Alamo Bowl.

“You never like losing a few of your better players like that, but that’s why you recruit, that’s why you have a deep roster, so that when your number’s called, you can step up and play well,” Sarkisian said.

The future is now at the RB position

With 931 carries, 5,330 yards, and 56 rushing touchdowns departing, the Longhorns are losing an incredible amount of talent, productivity, and experience at the position. But there’s still plenty of talent waiting in the wings of Tashard Choice’s position room even if the dropoff later this month will be noticeable.

The third-string running back is technically junior Keilan Robinson, but at 5’9, 185 pounds, Robinson isn’t a natural inside runner, instead profiling as a change-of-pace or all-purpose back. In fact, with 17 carries and 14 receptions this season, Robinson is used as much out of the backfield as he’s been used in the backfield.

So expect redshirt freshman Jonathon Brooks to receive the majority of carries against the Huskies. The Hallettsville product has flashed his upside this season with 24 carries for 179 yards and four touchdowns, including a 70-yard touchdown run against Kansas that flashed his upside. Those carries all came late in blowouts, however, against tired defenses without much fight left in them. Still, Brooks flashed vision, balance, explosiveness, elusiveness in the open field, and the toughness to finish runs. Now the departures will provide a more pure evaluation of Brooks as a potential starter in high-leverage situations.

Freshman Jaydon Blue could also receive some opportunities after carrying the ball 15 times for 33 yards this season. When Blue committed to the Longhorns, he was ranked as the No. 60 player nationally and the No. 4 running back, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, but dropped after he opted out of his senior season, falling to the No. 195 player nationally and the No. 15 running back. The concerns were never about his talent, though, and while Blue needed some extra time to acclimate this year after missing so many reps, he came on in practice later in the season and still possesses the 10.7 speed that made him so highly regarded following his big-time junior season.

“At running back, we feel good about the guys we’ve got,” Sarkisian said. “Keilan is a really good player, hej ust hasn’t had the opportunity to carry the ball the way we would like. Jonathon Brooks, we’ve seen glimpses of what it can look like and how he can run, and now Jaydon Blue’s going to look for his opportunity, so we feel good about it.”

Lack of depth at LB highlights need

When Overshown missed the first half of the Texas Tech game following a questionable targeting penalty assessed in the win over UTSA, the Red Raiders were able to expose the backups, especially junior David Gbenda. Playing over senior Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey, Gbenda blew a coverage assignment that led to a touchdown and Tucker-Dorsey was later responsible for the 75-yard touchdown run by TCU’s Kendre Miller after wandering out of his gap.

A mere gaze over the depth chart for the Alamo Bowl puts into further perspective the need to land Denton Ryan linebacker Anthony Hill, the former Texas A&M commit ranked as the nation’s No. 1 linebacker. Potentially targeting linebacker depth in the NCAA transfer portal may also be of high importance even with the additions to Hill and the other members of the 2023 recruiting class who signed last week.

With Tucker-Dorsey’s lack of size and Gbenda’s continued aspirations to the title of “quality depth,” position coach Jeff Choate has his work cut for him to achieve replacement-level play in San Antonio. Sophomore Mo Blackwell has also spent time at the position and plays with speed and physicality, but he’s undersized for a linebacker at 196 pounds.

“Moving forward, it’s a little bit seamless at linebacker just because of Tucker-Dorsey and what he’s done at that position, Mo Blackwell, what he’s done out there at linebacker, then obviously, it does create opportunities for David Gbenda to start getting more reps, so that’s been good,” Sarkisian said.

As the youngest player in the group with untapped upside, Blackwell might be the most interesting player of the three to watch against Washington.

“His energy. His physicality. He doesn’t really take no for an answer,” Texas junior linebacker Jaylan Ford said of Blackwell. “He found his way on special teams at first, wasn’t playing that much, and he’s worked his way up, and he’s finally got a chance to really come out here and be a big time player for us this week. I’m really happy for him.”

Special teams losses

Johnson and Overshown weren’t just key contributors on offense and defense, respectively, they were also special teams standouts on multiple units with Overshown serving as an important presence on the punt block/punt return unit and Johnson making multiple impressive plays on kickoff coverage, ultimately notching eight tackles this season, more than a number of Texas defenders.

So some young players will have to step up for special teams coordinator Jeff Banks on a number of different units to replace the contributions of Johnson and Overshown in the third phase.

Young leadership needs to emerge

As the Longhorns struggled last season, the lack of player leadership was a massive issue for Sarkisian in his first year on the Forty Acres. When asked to name team leaders, Johnson was often the only name mentioned. Robinson and Overshown were both players who stepped up into that vacuum as the team culture notably improved, as evidenced by improved resiliency when facing adversity and the effectiveness of several team meetings following disappointing losses.

Sarkisian has repeatedly praised the willingness of sophomore tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders to step up as a vocal leader with his teammates, so his continued maturation into that role will be important during bowl preparation, as well as the development of other young players, including redshirt freshman quarterback Quinn Ewers, sophomore wide receiver Xavier Worthy, and older players like junior linebacker Jaylan Ford.

“I think with the loss of the couple of guys we had declare, or it’s their last year, I think they were huge on the team,” Ford said. “Like Roschon, you could say he was the heart of this team this year and I think with the loss of him, somebody’s got to step up and fill that role. I think there’s guys that you look around and you know he’s trying to do that. Everybody knows that. This week is a good time to start.”