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Steve Sarkisian: Texas RB CJ Baxter is a ‘natural’

Despite playing in a gap-heavy scheme in high school, the nation’s No. 1 running back in the 2023 recruiting class has acclimated quickly to Sarkisian’s scheme.

Texas football

AUSTIN, Texas — With the departures of running backs Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson, the Texas Longhorns lost an incredible amount of production of leadership at the position, putting pressure on new running backs coach Tashard Choice to restock his room with the type of elite talent that will allow the Longhorns to maintain the high standard of play at running back.

Enter Orlando (Fla.) Edgewater’s CJ Baxter, a prospect with whom Choice had already built a relationship when he arrived on the Forty Acres last year and emerged as the top target last summer as Texas cooled on in-state product and one-time commit Reuben Owens. In the midst of the recruiting surge following Arch Manning’s pledge in June, Baxter gave his commitment to the Longhorns in August, explicitly citing the influence of Choice on his decision.

Despite dealing with injury issues as a senior, Baxter still managed to rush for 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns on 174 carries in 10 games before participating in the 2023 Under Armour All-American game.

Ranked as the No. 4 running back nationally and the No. 48 player overall, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, the strength of Baxter’s senior season and his performance in Orlando helped him end the cycle as the top-ranked running back and the No. 22 player.

An early enrollee, Baxter arrived on the Forty Acres in January with high expectations based on his talent level, maturity, and intelligence. During a practice window made open to the media on Tuesday, Baxter was working as the third-team running back behind redshirt sophomore Jonathon Brooks, back from offseason surgery, and sophomore running back Jaydon Blue.

Ultimately, Baxter’s skill set, on and off the field, should help him push Brooks and Blue heading into the 2023 season, especially since Baxter is already effectively addressing the two biggest concerns about his game, according to Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian — his pad level at 6’1 and his ability to translate his running style to zone schemes after playing in a gap-heavy offense at Edgewater.

As the tallest running back on the roster by a noticeable margin, Baxter presents a larger tackling surface than his teammates, making him more susceptible to getting taken down in traffic and exposing him to injuries. But in addition to running with the right leverage, Baxter has another key tool for a big back.

“CJ is a natural runner, for sure — you feel his size,” Sarkisian said on Tuesday. “I think he does a good job of getting behind his pads. He’s got a good stiff arm, like a lot of big, good running backs need to have. They need to have a stiff arm to keep people off their legs. He definitely does that.”

During the media window in Tuesday’s practice, the running backs went through a zone drill using a rope denoting each gap at the line of scrimmage with Choice calling out the gap to hit after the backs received the handoff. Baxter held his own. After practice, Sarkisian provided more insight into Baxter’s acclimation after running behind as many as three pulling linemen at times at Bridgewater.

“Seems very natural. He’s got good patience, he doesn’t get anxious — which sometimes young runners can, they want to hurry up and get to the line of scrimmage — and he trusts his vision. There’s a reason he was the player he was in high school and we’re seeing it now.”

Baxter already provided a flash of his ability in zone schemes, recognizing a clean edge and lack of containment on an inside zone play in the Under Armour game and bouncing it outside for a 12-yard touchdown, noting in a subsequent interview that he was reading the three-technique before taking the corner.

And Baxter also had a long touchdown run early in his senior highlights on outside zone, so he didn’t arrive in Austin entirely without high school experience on zone runs.

Even approximating what the Longhorns got from Robinson and Johnson will be extremely difficult, but Baxter’s addition to the roster continues to trend towards paying quick dividends on the field this fall.