The Texas Longhorns offense will look especially different next season — most notably because Sam Ehlinger won’t be lined up behind center for the first time since 2016.
The 55-23 Alamo Bowl win over the Colorado Buffaloes provided an early peak at what new Teas head coach Steve Sarkisian and his first offensive coordinator’s offense may resemble by next September with Casey Thompson at the helm, as the redshirt sophomore masterfully orchestrated Texas’ aerial attack in Ehlinger’s absence, completing 8-of-10 attempts for 170 yards and four scores.
Thompson’s second-half outburst was an undeniably encouraging sign and sparked some optimism about the future of the quarterback position in Austin, which will surely become a key talking point until the Texas season opener nine months from now.
As for the future of the entire offense, though, Thompson’s flash against an overmatched opponent doesn’t negate the fact that running back Bijan Robinson must be the focal point of the offense as a sophomore in 2021.
This isn’t simply because Robinson stole the show on a single night, earning Alamo Bowl Offensive MVP honors after turning only 10 carries into 183 yards and a touchdown and taking each of his two receptions into the end zone for 14 more points, though his best performance of the season was certainly vindicating for those clamoring for his workload to increase. After entering the season as the third string back and spending additional time sidelined with a back sprain — the consequence of his scary failed hurdle attempt — the former top-ranked running back found his footing and suddenly starting displaying thrilling glimpses of what the Longhorns offense looks like with “Little Ricky” running the ball.
On Nov. 7 against West Virginia, Robinson recorded his first career 100-yard performance (113), and did so on only 12 carries. His statistics plummeted to a mere 54 yards the following game against No. 13 Iowa State, though his nine early carries helped Texas establish a 10-0 edge before he inexplicably received just seven carries throughout the rest of the contest. Robinson’s next 100-yard performance came the following game, as he exploded for 172 yards and three touchdowns on only nine carries in a 69-31 win over Kansas State.
And, of course, Robinson topped that effort the next time out with his 220 total yards and three touchdowns against Colorado.
Including his pass-catching contributions as well, Robinson averaged video game numbers throughout his last two appearances of the season, totaling 443 yards and far more impressively, averaged 18.5 yards per touch and averaged a touchdown every four touches. Maintaining such a tremendously productive pace throughout the course of an entire season would be a bit far fetched, but Robinson’s efforts clearly emphasized just how significant of an impact he has when he’s actually being utilized.
For example, throughout the final four games of the season — during which time the game seemingly slowed down for Robinson and he established a clear sense of comfort and confidence — Texas scored 66 points on the 14 drives when Robinson received multiple touches. For perspective, that 4.71 points per drive average in such situations would have quite easily led the entire nation if the Texas offense performed at this pace all season. But as was clearly evident during games, Texas didn’t utilize Robinson nearly as much as it probably should have during this four-game stretch. Notably overshadowing those 14 drives with multiple touches were the 37 drives during which Robinson received no more than a single touch, including 24 drives without a touch at all.
The result? Only 88 points on 37 drives, which is good (or bad) for an underwhelming 2.38 points per drive that would have ranked outside of the top 50 nationally throughout the course of the season. And even those 88 points were inflated by Robinson’s impact, to include his one-play, 75-yard touchdown run against Kansas State and his 66-yard sprint against Colorado to set up Thompson’s first touchdown pitch the following play.
Simply put, Texas unleashed what statistically resembled the nation’s most potent offense when Robinson was heavily involved, but looked the part of the mediocre unit when he wasn’t.
Yet, tremendously productive drives — often led by Robinson — were too often followed by mind-boggling stretches of Robinson simply watching from the sidelines, as was the case against Colorado.
Why? Well, in the words of former Texas head coach Tom Herman, to make the most of a running back who’s fresh.
“I think Roschon (Johnson) showed that in the second half, in the fourth quarter, with that run, being fresh,” Herman said after the game. “Bijan had some great runs in the second half being fresh. That’s kind of what we do. The missed opportunities in the second quarter in the run game, I don’t think any tailback, probably wouldn’t have mattered who was in the game.”
To be sure, there is value in utilizing a fresh option and Johnson undoubtedly deserves his fair share of carries. But on the other hand, Robinson ranking 243rd nationally with a modest 9.6 carries per game quite simply isn’t enough for an option who has proven himself so impactful — he set a Texas freshman record with 8.2 yards per carry after gaining at least 10 yards on 18 of his 86 carries and ranking ninth nationally with 10 rushes of at least 20 yards.
With Ehlinger and his 11.3 rush attempts per game now gone from the program, there will be more than a few carries to be divided amongst Robinson, Johnson, potentially Keaontay Ingram, and either Thompson or Hudson Card, but the bulk of those touches must go to Robinson. Beyond that fact that Texas began producing at a truly elite level with Robinson involved so there’s clear evidence of his impact, he’ll almost certainly be the Longhorns best and most dynamic offensive weapon next season.
Not to mention, whether it’s Thompson or Card, Robinson will be sharing the backfield with a quarterback who will be entering their first season as a starter, so there’s certainly some incentive for Sarkisian and his to-be-determined staff to rely upon a running back who’s an apparent superstar in the making.
To that end, Sarkisian’s reputation as a bit of a quarterback whisperer certainly bodes well for the development of Thompson and Card, but Robinson should become the the most immediate beneficiary under Sarkisian’s direction.
Steve Sarkisian’s leading rushers
Dating back to his debut campaign as Washington’s head coach in 2009, Sarkisian’s offenses have helped produce seven consecutive 1,100-yard rushers, with Chris Polk (Washington), Bishop Sankey (Washington), Javorius Allen (USC) and Najee Harris (Alabama) collectively averaging 1,365 yards per season.
After witnessing Robinson explode for 355 rushing yards in his last season appearances and cap his first season on the Forty Acres with the third-best yards per carry average in the country (8.2), it’s well within the realm of possibility that Robinson continues the trend of 1,100-plus yards under Sarkisian.
More importantly, to potentially help him reach that feat, Sarkisian’s feature backs have averaged 245.5 attempts per season throughout this stretch, so there’s plenty reason to believe that Robinson’s talent won’t be severely underutilized and mismanaged as it was down the stretch in 2020.
This, in turn, may mean Texas boasts one of the nation’s best offenses in 2021, and the proof is in the points per drive when Texas simply lets Robinson run.
For better or worse, we’re going to see a different Texas offense next season.
The Sam Ehlinger era is over. If Sarkisian and his staff allow the Bijan Robinson era to truly take hold in 2021 and he becomes the focal point of the offense, Ehlinger’s successor will surely benefit and the offense as a whole may be the best version of itself.