As the Texas Longhorns went through a six-game losing streak during the 2021 season, one of the overriding narratives from first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian was about the lack of player leadership on the team.
Backup running back Roschon Johnson was one of the few obvious, unquestioned leaders, but the name that was always notably absent was that of the team’s best player — running back Bijan Robinson, a Heisman contender early in the season before the long losing streak and the elbow injury that sidelined him for the final two games.
As Sarkisian emphasized player-to-player team building this offseason, Robinson has emerged as a more vocal leader as a junior. In fact, when Robinson was asked in an appearance on ESPNU what he’s been trying to improve this season, leadership was his quick response.
“Just being a better leader. These past few years, I’ve been very observant of the team. Kinda watched it, tried to lead by example. But I think the team needs to hear me and they need to hear my voice — they need to hear more than me just playing on the field and giving them the encouragement,” Robinson said.
With 35 new players on the team and a young roster in general, for Sarkisian to effectively instill his culture and hold the Longhorns to his standards, he needs the players to lead the way, not just in setting the right example, but re-directing poor behaviors or poor levels of effort.
“If we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do on a day, be that guy to be a vocal leader and to let them hear me, understand me so it can motivate the team. But trying to be a better leader is what I’m trying to be best at.”
Working under new running backs coach Tashard Choice, Robinson is also working to develop other aspects of his game on and off the field under Choice’s demanding style.
“I’m never comfortable with Coach Choice because every time I do a little thing wrong he’s on it,” Robinson said. “But he’s supposed to do that. He’s helped me a lot. He does it out of love. Having him as a coach has been awesome.”
One area where Robinson has tried to improve off the field is with his film-watching habits.
“Even watching film better — I know that we can always improve on watching film and seeing different holes in defenses, even in our games,” Robinson said. “So, you know, I try to elevate my level in a different way with that.”
On the field, the area of Robinson’s game with the most room for improvement is pass protection. Through maturation, he’s increasingly realized how crucial pass protection is for a running back.
“As I’m getting older, I’m realizing that path detection is really one of the most important things that the team needs and if you can’t protect the quarterback then I mean, they don’t really need you, so it’s one of the most important things for a running back and for a team,” Robinson said.
“I’ve been working a lot at pass blocking. That’s been a huge focus for me.”
Robinson has already flashed his ability as a pass catcher with 26 receptions for 295 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore, but Sarkisian admitted in Arlington that the Longhorns only “dabbled” in using the running backs in more versatile ways last season.
“He wants more. He wants to expand his game,” Sarkisian said of Robinson as a receiver.
So Robinson expects to line up in the slot more often where he can take advantage of having what he jokingly tells the wide receivers are the best hands on the team. Ultimately, though, Robinson is concerned about winning above all else.
“Whatever Sark has for me and whatever he wants me to do to help this team win, that’s what I’ve gotta do,” Robinson said. “So if my role elevates more, let’s get it for this season.”