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Bijan’s breakout: Texas freshman runs wild as teammates believe ‘Oh, that’s just the start’

RB Bijan Robinson broke 69-year-old school rushing record by averaging 19.1 yards per carry vs. Kansas State

Texas running back Bijan Robinson breaks free for a touchdown during the first half of against Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan., on Saturday. Robinson scored three touchdowns in the game. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

MANHATTAN, Kan. — What Bijan Robinson did Saturday against Kansas State was no surprise to his Texas teammates. None whatsoever.

“Oh, that’s just the start. That’s just the start for Bijan,” quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. “We’ve been seeing that every single day. So, I can't wait till y’all see that every single game. It's going to be amazing.”

Robinson, the five-star freshman from Arizona, finally had his true breakout moment in burnt orange. He froze would-be tacklers with open-field moves and tried to straight-up bulldoze others. He showed incredible balance, explosion through holes and couldn’t be chased down on a 75-yard touchdown run.

The Longhorns’ 69-31 win over the Wildcats was something of a ho-hum affair between two teams out of the Big 12 title race. But history may show it was the day Robinson’s Texas career really took flight.

Who knows what’ll be in store this week against 0-9 Kansas, which has the worst run defense in the Big 12. 

“Well, it’s a blessing to have that opportunity that God’s brought me here and to be able to play with the team like this and see what was going on today,” Robinson said Saturday. “It’s been a great, great feeling today, and I just want to keep it going.”

Robinson carried the ball only nine times but had 172 yards and three touchdowns. By averaging 19.1 yards per carry, he broke a 69-year-old school record; Gib Dawson, who averaged 16 yards per carry against North Carolina in 1951, rushed nine times for 144 yards.

Asked if he expected to ultimately perform this well, the humble Robinson sort of half-shrugged and said, “I mean, yes. But I just knew it was going to take time.

“It’s a totally different game from high school, different speeds,” Robinson said. “So it’s been good to really feel comfortable out there and just to play free.”

Texas coach Tom Herman purposely brought Robinson along slow. At the beginning of the season, junior Keaontay Ingram started, sophomore Roschon Johnson was the backup and Robinson was No. 3. 

Robinson deserved more carries as the season went on; the numbers bore that out along with the eye test. But Herman remained stubbornly tied to the three-man rotation. Then Ingram suffered an ankle injury against Oklahoma State on Oct. 31, and Robinson and Johnson have had to split the workload.

Robinson opened the West Virginia game with a 54-yard sprint. He closed it with a game-icing 35-yard reception. 

“I don't want to say it was a struggle, it was just a different speed of from what I was used to,” Robinson said. “I feel towards the West Virginia game, I just started playing loose and just started playing the game I used to be playing in. To see what's been going on ever since then, it's been a blessing.”

Herman and running backs coach Stan Drayton have used the same developmental playbook with Robinson that they used with Ezekiel Elliott at Ohio State. Elliott had only 30 rushing attempts for 262 yards as a freshman in 2012. He rushed for more 1,800 yards both as a sophomore and junior.

“With Bijan, the speed of the game has finally slowed down for him,” Herman said. “You just see certain things as a true freshman tailback. You’re either too fast to the hole or too slow to the hole, or you’re trying to make too many cuts behind the line of scrimmage.”

Herman said every freshman running back has “thousands of bad habits” that need to be addressed.

“I think he would be the first to tell you that he needed kind of that phasing in process to understand the scheme and the speed of the game,” Herman said.

Like all college freshmen, Robinson said it was eye-opening to see that “everybody has the same athletic ability as you in college or some even better.” It’s taken time to learn to defeat tackles, get around blocks and simply learn how to block himself, Robinson said.

Robinson didn’t get double-digit carries until the Baylor game on Oct. 24. He got up to 16 carries against Iowa State on Nov. 27. On Saturday, he had the seventh-best rushing day by a UT freshman in school history.

“Coach Drayton always tells us as a running back unit to just anticipate before a defender can come to you, make that happen first,” Robinson said. “Make a move or make them miss before he even has a chance to get adjusted. So, I feel that's what I’ve been improving on the most.

“Before, I just used to wait for a defender to come but now I just go in, not even hesitate before I even think about it,” he added.

Robinson had a big day, but Johnson’s big numbers can’t be ignored, either. Johnson had 139 yards on 14 carries and three touchdowns. The converted quarterback is no shrinking violet on this depth chart.

Texas running back Roschon Johnson (2) gets past Kansas State defensive back Brock Monty (24) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Manhattan, Kan., Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.

“Roschon is a warrior. He's an absolute warrior,” Ehlinger said. “And he’s a complete team player, one of the hardest workers on this team. Comes to work every single day, completely selfless and can’t say enough incredible words about him.”

And as for Ingram, Herman told the Longhorn Network that the junior would likely not play in the final two regular-season games because of the ankle injury. However, it did not appear that Ingram was preparing to transfer, as some Internet reports suggested last week.

Texas has three capable running backs in its stable and plans on signing Jonathon Brooks from Hallettsville in the 2021 recruiting class. Brooks rushed for 501 yards and nine touchdowns in a 61-48 victory over Lorena in the Class 3A Division I regional semifinals. Yes, those numbers are correct.

The Longhorns may have questions at other positions and the coach’s status is up in the air. But the running back position looks solid for 2021.

Saturday's game

Texas at Kansas, 2:30 p.m., ESPNU, 104.9