Looking back, it’s fitting Eric Rogers first spotted Bijan Robinson in Roswell, N.M.
The head coach at Salpointe Catholic (Tucson, Az.) High School chuckles at the memory of seeing Texas’s sophomore running back in the town famous for its alien conspiracy theories following a mysterious 1947 aircraft crash nearby. Robinson’s talent from an early age was, well, out of this world, and Rogers recalls Robinson dominating a flag football contest as an eighth grader. Robinson wreaked havoc on defenses largely as a pass catcher, displaying the speed and agility that landed him a spot on the Associated Press preseason All-America team entering 2021. The outline of a Division I tailback was evident even before Robinson’s freshman year at Salpointe.
“In the little flag stuff, it’s all throwing the ball, and I remember watching him leap and jump and make a play in the back of the end zone with one hand,” Rogers says. “I had never seen a kid so young doing things like that. I remember saying to myself, ‘Wow, that’s not normal.’ ”
Robinson landed at Salpointe shortly thereafter, and over the next half-decade, he exceeded expectations. In his final three seasons at the school, Robinson totaled more than 6,600 rushing yards. He won his conference’s Offensive Player of the Year award as a junior in 2018, and he was named Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior.
A freshman season in Austin yielded flashes of brilliance, highlighted by an Alamo Bowl win over Colorado that saw him go for 183 rushing yards, a rushing touchdown and two receiving scores. Robinson was as good as advertised as a high schooler, and met the hype as a freshman at Texas.
Yet despite the bowl-game breakout, Robinson’s 2020 served as more of a teaser than a true program-changer. He failed to crack the end zone in each of his first seven games, and he crossed 15 touches just once in a single contest. Robinson’s first year on the Forty Acres coincided with the final season of Tom Herman’s tenure, a four-year stint that included one 10-win season, zero Big 12 titles and a middling 22–14 record in conference play. As Steve Sarkisian looks to turn the tide after a lost decade at Texas, Robinson is likely his most reliable piece.
To flip the narrative surrounding the program in 2021, Texas may very well need a Heisman-level season from Robinson. The Longhorns have been mired in a slump for over a decade following their national championship loss in January 2010, and the struggles have been exacerbated since Mack Brown’s departure in ’13. Charlie Strong failed to reach .500 in each of his three seasons, lost to Kansas and exited Austin after 2016. Texas then fended off LSU for Tom Herman, but the former Longhorns graduate assistant and Houston head coach faced his own challenges.
A Sugar Bowl win in 2018 was followed by a middling 8–5 year in 2019, and a 7–3 record last season didn’t stop a serious flirtation with Urban Meyer from the university’s omnipresent boosters. Sarkisian is now the third coach of Texas’s post-Brown era. Even given the Longhorns’ array of structural advantages, we’ve learned success is no guarantee.
Strong hamstrung his tenure with a number of—to put it politely—questionable in-game decisions. Herman’s combative attitude didn’t do him any favors. Yet ultimately, Texas’s recent struggles can largely be traced back to a lack of impact offensive talent. Vince Young is the last Texas offensive player to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Colt McCoy is the Longhorns’ most recent Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Having a potential All-American at a skill position has been a rarity in Austin since the height of Brown’s tenure.
Texas’s new coach is no stranger to elite offensive talent. Sarkisian joins the Longhorns after a two-decade coaching odyssey, a period that included stops at USC, Alabama and Washington as well as Atlanta and Oakland in the NFL. Sarkisian had a front-row seat to Reggie Bush’s Heisman run at USC. He drew up plays for Julio Jones for two seasons with the Falcons. Last season featured Sarkisian’s most productive year as a coordinator, as Alabama scored 48.5 points per game en route to a 13–0 season. Give Sarkisian the right weapons, and his track record suggests an effective attack will follow.
Sarkisian’s most recent star running back is instructive when previewing Robinson’s 2021 season. Alabama wideout DeVonta Smith took home the Heisman last year, though running back Najee Harris turned in quite the dominant campaign of his own. Harris scored 30 touchdowns from scrimmage on 5.8 yards per carry, adding 43 receptions to his 1,466 yards on the ground. And despite his 232-pound frame, Harris wasn’t exactly a straight-line bulldozer. He beat linebackers and safeties on swing passes and checkdowns. He beat defenders to the edge on read option plays, and when given space in the open field, he had no problem hurdling a helpless defender.
Like Harris, Robinson possesses the Swiss-army-knife abilities necessary for most successful modern running backs. Scheming around his talents is one of Sarkisian’s top imperatives in 2021.
“If we can put a ballpark in that 18–22 range, roughly 20 touches per game, that puts us in a good position,” Sarkisian told the media in August regarding Robinson’s usage. “I don’t necessarily put a number on it. ... We’d be remiss not to get Bijan the ball, and we’ll be sure that he gets the touches to make him the best player he can be.”
Dennis Bene was in a position similar to Sarkisian’s in 2016. Salpointe’s head coach from 2001 to ’19 heard rumblings of Robinson dominating competition as a middle schooler, and he briefly met the star running back during an on campus visit in ’15. Yet by and large, Robinson entered his freshman year at Salpointe as a relative wild card to the school’s head coach. Entering opening night, the teenager’s usage remained a question mark.
“Our opening game, we played a rival school that’s gone back decades. They were very physical on defense, so Bijan actually didn’t play,” Bene says. “I didn’t want to put him in a position where he wouldn’t succeed.”
Bene quickly corrected his mistake. Robinson entered Salpointe’s running back rotation shortly after Week 1, and his impact was immediate. Robinson’s first series as a high school tailback resulted in a 70-yard touchdown. He rushed for nine yards per carry as a freshman before earning all-conference honors as a sophomore, and by the time his junior year arrived, Robinson was considered one of the nation’s top running back prospects.The accolades and attention only entrenched what Bene learned four years prior.
“Three straight years of 2,000-plus rushing yards doesn’t lie,” Bene says. “This kid is an otherworldly talent.”
It would be fitting for a running back to be the driving force behind a Texas revival. The position is home to many of the greatest players in program history, including a pair of Heisman winners and eight All-Americas. Earl Campbell’s last year with the burnt orange was an 11–1 season to kick off the Fred Akers era. One of Brown’s greatest achievements in Austin was convincing Ricky Williams to stay for his senior season, a 2,124-yard campaign that kickstarted a decade of success for the Longhorns.
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Williams’s brilliant farewell tour was followed in subsequent years by standout seasons from Cedric Benson and Jamaal Charles, both of whom amassed 1,000-yard years in the NFL. Save for Young and McCoy, much of Texas’s achievements over the last half-century can be attributed to brilliance in the backfield. Robinson can write his own chapter in Longhorn lore if he emerges as an elite offensive weapon over the next two seasons, though following in Campbell and Williams’s footsteps isn’t exactly at the top of his agenda.
“It’s a blessing that we have running backs like that came before us,” Robinson says. “But I try not to focus on that kind of stuff. ... I just want to be the best teammate and player that I can be for this team, for this university, for my family.
“I try not to think about that stuff, but it’s awesome to be in a conversation like that.”
Robinson isn’t ignorant of the deep history behind him, nor is he one to shy away from expectations of greatness. Bene notes a “secret fire” burning under Robinson’s cool exterior. Rogers sees “a whole different dude” when the former Salpointe star steps onto the field. Robinson carries himself with a self-assuredness earned through years of training and preparation, with each contest further validating his work to become one of the nation’s top running backs. Robinson’s highlights on Saturday wow fans across the Big 12. His work Monday through Friday is what catches the eye of those around him.
There are plenty of stories of Robinson’s success on the field at the high school and collegiate level, both at practice and against opponents. Yet from Bene to Rogers to Sarkisian to Robinson’s current teammates, his on-field exploits are almost ancillary to the personal impression he leaves. Texas quarterback Casey Thompson lauded Robinson as “selfless” and “uplifting.” Defensive lineman Keondre Coburn marveled that Robinson “never runs out of energy.”
Postgame scenes at Salpointe featured Robinson getting escorted to the locker room by his coaches, weaving through the remaining fans after a flood of handshakes and selfies. There’s a palpable earnestness evident when Robinson speaks. He makes constant note to be grateful for the opportunity ahead. Robinson enters 2021 with not only the chance to be an on-field star—he could very well emerge as a household name across the nation.
“Bijan is unique to me. He’s a very special young man,” Sarkisian says. “He’s determined and he’s motivated, but he's also humble. ... What makes him a good person is also what makes him a good player.”
The Heisman Trophy is likely out of reach for Robinson in 2021. The Longhorns presumably need a couple of breaks to win the Big 12, and even if Texas’s rebuild ends up way ahead of schedule, just one running back has won the Heisman since 2010. But look past the hardware, and a broader, more impactful picture emerges. Robinson could be the catalyst in turning around what is currently a dormant program, setting Sarkisian up for a potential decade of success similar to that of Brown after his 1998 run with Williams. Texas has been an afterthought for much of the College Football Playoff era. Robinson could change that in a hurry.
“Bijan’s best is yet to come,” Rogers says. “And that should really scare some people.”
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