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2024 Sugar Bowl preview: A year after opt outs hurt the Texas OL’s mental approach, the unit has found themselves

“I feel like that was the first time we were really finding the team we have now,” Christian Jones said of last year’s loss to Washington in the Alamo Bowl.

Texas v Houston Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

AUSTIN, Texas — Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson weren’t walking through the tunnel of the Alamodome. Not suited up, at least.

When the two star Texas Longhorns running backs opted out of the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio last season against the Washington Huskies to prepare for the 2023 NFL Draft, the offensive line was left feeling deflated by their absence in pads and it showed on the stadium’s FieldTurf as the Longhorns ran for only 51 yards on 18 carries.

“It’s easy to say now in hindsight, but I feel like we weren’t necessarily all the way there mentally that game,” senior right tackle Christian Jones said last week of his position group.

Pressed on the statement, Jones didn’t care to admit that the opts outs made a difference. Until he did.

“I don’t want to say yes to that, I don’t, but a lot of different factors. Kind of human nature-ish. Some people were missing and that was a big hit,” said Jones.

Not only were Robinson and Johnson out after combining to account for 931 carries, 5,330 yards, and 56 rushing touchdowns in their standout careers, but third-string running back Jonathon Brooks was limited by a groin injury requiring offseason hernia surgery that didn't become public until after the 27-20 loss.

So the expected showcase never happened for Brooks, who consistently made plays throughout his first two seasons when given the opportunity late in blowouts. Instead, special teams standout and change-of-pace back Keilan Robinson was forced into an every-down role that seemed inexplicable in real time absent the injury information about Brooks, carrying the ball eight times for 27 yards. On six carries, Brooks himself managed just 18 yards and then-freshman Jaydon Blue was conspicuously absent, too, in a game that featured a 13-yard scramble by quarterback Quinn Ewers as the only run of longer than seven yards by the Longhorns.

“I feel like that was the first time we were really finding the team we have now,” said Jones.

What the Longhorns eventually found in Brooks was a lead back capable of ranking among the nation’s elite before suffering a season-ending knee injury against the Horned Frogs in November.

The position room’s depth, however, has told in the next-man-up mentality that featured the No. 1 running back in the 2023 class, CJ Baxter, rushing for a career-high 117 yards on 20 carries the following week in a 26-16 win over Iowa State on the road.

Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian developed a role for the speedster Blue, too, freeing him for a 69-yard touchdown run against Texas Tech in a 21 personnel package with Baxter and junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders handling the back side and junior left guard Hayden Conner and junior wide receiver AD Mitchell providing the key blocks on the play side to create a massive seam for Blue to run through.

“He’s explosive, man, he’s a one-cut type of guy. Great vision and he’s a speedster, too. So it’s amazing to see — sometimes you’re able to catch like a little blur of him going by you and it’s a great feeling,” said Jones.

Blue also caught a touchdown pass in the Big 12 Championship game against Oklahoma State.

Even Robinson has found an increased role after limited touches on offense throughout the season — he scored a 10-yard touchdown on his lone carry in the blowout win over the Red Raiders and two more touchdowns in Arlington, including a 57-yard score down the sideline. The Big 12 title game along accounted for six of his 20 touches on offense in 2023.

And the offensive line is doing its part by increasingly finding its edge, highlighted by a devastating block from sophomore left tackle Kelvin Banks on a counter play against the Cowboys that resulted in a touchdown run by Baxter.

Do the rest of the offensive linemen feed off that type of play?

“Yeah, I’m smiling ear to ear right now and that happened like a month ago,” said Jones. “It’s amazing to see and then you want to do it, too. I mean, that’s the healthy competition we’re talking about. So it’s good, man. Super, super awesome.”

When Jones first got to the Forty Acres in 2018, the older offensive linemen told him about the brotherhood at the position, about getting deep into a drive and looking right and looking left and thinking, “I’m doing it for my brothers.”

Young, naive, and still new to football after playing soccer growing up, Jones needed time to understand that mentality and just as much or more time to refine his technique and fundamentals to become a valuable asset to the Texas offensive line.

“That bond, it makes you go harder and you don’t think about yourself, you think about doing your job to the best of your ability for the guy next to you and everyone on the field. It’s a very big component and it can win a lot of games,” said Jones.

After taking a month to recover from the knocks that accumulate over the course of 13 games, the Texas offensive line is feeling fresh again even though Jones wasn’t willing to say that the version of the Longhorns that shows up in the trenches in New Orleans will be the best version of themselves.

“I don’t want to make any promises, but I know that we’re going to play hard, we’re going to block to the echo of the whistle, and we’re gonna try and be the engine of the team.”

This time, they won’t be thinking about who they don’t have running behind them.