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Rebuilding at the Alamo: No. 20 Texas will play youngsters galore vs. Colorado

Forget about those who opted out, Texas fans should focus on those who are all-in, like RB Bijan Robinson

Texas players take the field at the Alamodome ahead of last year's win over 11th-ranked Utah. With so many notable players opting out of the game, this year's matchup against Colorado will give fans a glimpse of the players who'll make up the 2021 team.

Texas fans shouldn’t worry about who’s opted out against Colorado. They should focus on who’s all-in Tuesday at the Alamo Bowl. Mask up on the Riverwalk and start looking toward 2021.

Optimism should take center stage heading into every new year. Good riddance to 2020 and all it has wrought on the sports landscape. And if we’re already looking toward next season, let’s start with potentially the most exciting player on the roster — freshman running back Bijan Robinson.

“I'm excited to see Bijan play again,” senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. “I'm always excited to see him play.”

There’s Jake Smith and Jordan Whittington at receiver. Jared Wiley is a promising tight end who needs more targets. Two freshmen, Andrej Karic and Jake Majors, are likely to start on the offensive line at tackle and center.

Texas running back Bijan Robinson has taken over the Longhorns running game his freshman season.

Let’s see more of Alfred Collins at defensive tackle and Vernon Broughton at defensive end. More Jerrin Thompson at safety, please, along with some Jaylan Ford at linebacker. Kitan Crawford wouldn’t mind a few reps at corner, too. 

“You’re not going to show up at the Alamodome and be like, ‘Hey, who is that?’ But definitely increasing their role and contribution,” Texas coach Tom Herman said.

No. 20 Texas (6-3, 5-3 Big 12) will certainly look different in this bowl game with younger players in key positions. Five team captains have opted out to start working toward the NFL draft. A sixth (center Derek Kerstetter) is injured. 

Label 2021 a rebuilding year if you like; it’ll certainly match the description. But Herman could use a big win over the Buffaloes (4-1, 3-1 Pac-12) to shore up fans’ confidence heading into next season. Heck, maybe his own, too. 

Texas defensive back Jerrin Thompson breaks up a pass intended for Kansas State tight end Briley Moore during the Longhorns' win in Manhattan on Dec. 5. That's the last time Texas has played.

Herman is 3-0 in bowl games at Texas, and all of them were a smoothing balm after rash-inducing, frustrating seasons.

“We’re heading in a great direction,” Robinson said in earnest. “I just feel this year has been just a build-up year for something great. I'm so high on my faith that I know God has a plan for this team.”

Does Texas’ future include Ehlinger? The last remaining team captain from 2020 would have you thinking so.

While his teammates have issued long, drawn-out goodbye statements, Ehlinger has sidestepped all questions about his future. The four-year starter with 11,276 career passing yards and 93 touchdowns is thinking he’s somehow not ready for the NFL?

“I have given thought to it. I haven’t come to a conclusion yet,” Ehlinger told reporters before Christmas. “I’m trying to enjoy these last few weeks. But I haven’t closed the door on anything yet.”

The NCAA has frozen everyone’s eligibility because of the pandemic. All seniors, including Ehlinger, could come back for another year of eligibility. Several Horns are doing just that, like offensive linemen Denzel Okafor and Tope Imade and tight end Cade Brewer. 

“As far as the seniors returning, that’s a big-time addition for us,” Herman said. “I had a meeting with all of those seniors and told them we’d love for them all to come back. And I meant it.”

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, a former Westlake star, hugs Chaparrals coach Todd Dodge as Longhorns running back Bijan Robinson looks on during Westlake's 57-14 playoff win over Cedar Ridge on Dec. 11.

Last season, Ehlinger led the Horns to an 8-5 record and a win over No. 11 Utah in this same Alamo Bowl. After that game, Ehlinger didn’t want to make any public statement about his status for 2020. The school had already prepared a snappy Twitter video he could post a few days later announcing he was coming back.

Maybe Ehlinger has another social media post queued up and ready this time around, too. Backups Casey Thompson and Hudson Card are keeping eagle-eyed, round-the-clock surveillance. 

“You know, it’s a blessing to be in the situation that I’m in,” Ehlinger said. “But everybody’s been very respectful of the fact that I do want to focus on the season and that’s the most important thing to me right now.”

Fans shouldn’t raise their Twitter thumbs in protest over Samuel Cosmi or Joseph Ossai’s decision to skip the bowl. UT’s left tackle and defensive end have worked their way into becoming first- or second-round draft picks, based on the projections.

Safety Caden Sterns, defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham, safety Chris Brown and receiver Brennan Eagles have all opted out with the draft in mind, too. None of those players are projected to go as high as Cosmi or Ossai, but that doesn’t make their dreams any less viable.

Cosmi, Ossai, Sterns and Eagles are all underclassmen. Only they truly know the feedback received from the NFL draft advisory committee. That panel tells players one of three things: you could be a first-round pick, you could be a second-round pick or you should stay in school. 

For several years now, multiple Horns were told to stay in school but went pro anyway. Some of them were hugely disappointed. All used it as motivation.

“I’m not here to tell a young man what to do. That is not my job,” Herman said. “I’m here to counsel, to mentor, to weigh the pros and cons. I tell them all Texas is going to be fine. We’re better with you here, but we’re going to be fine. The advice I give these guys really comes from a parental standpoint, if you will.”

Colorado running back Jarek Broussard led the Pac-12 in rushing, averaging 162.6 yards a game. He was the conference's offensive player of the year this season.

Herman would tell those on the field Tuesday to get after it. Colorado hasn’t played many games this season, but coach Karl Dorrell’s club still has the Pac-12 offensive player of the year. Running back Jarek Broussard led the league in rushing, averaging 162.6 yards per game.

Think Broussard won’t take this game seriously? He was one of 14 finalists for the Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year after missing the last two years because of two torn ACL injuries.

Colorado started the Pac-12’s abbreviated schedule 4-0 before losing to Utah 38-21.

Texas has not played since a 69-31 demolition over Kansas State on Dec. 5. The regular-season finale against Kansas was scrapped because Texas didn’t have enough players, according to the Big 12’s COVID guidelines. The program was shut down for a full week while as many as 51 people either tested positive or fell under contact tracing.

“There’s still going to be a couple that won’t be out in time to put safely on the field for the Alamo Bowl, and that’s disheartening,” Herman said.

So would looking sloppy and disjointed against Colorado.

Nobody knows what spring football will look like just yet, unless COVID-19 magically disappears when the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. That means nobody knows how the offseason will go, either.

But January and February go a lot smoother after bowl victories, no matter the location or opponent. 

“Overall, the mood is great,” cornerback Josh Thompson said. “We’re just ready to go out and compete in the Alamo Bowl and have one of our best games. Always look forward to that.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS

Remember the Alamo?

This will be the fifth Alamo Bowl appearance for Texas since the 2005 national championship season.

2006: No. 18 Texas 26, Iowa 24 — In the Year After VY, redshirt freshman Colt McCoy capped a 10-3 season with a 300-yard night against the Hawkeyes.

2012: Texas 31, No. 15 Oregon State 27 — The Horns rallied from 10 points back in the fourth, sparked by David Ash and Marquise Goodwin.

2013: No. 10 Oregon 30, Texas 7 — Heisman winner Marcus Mariota (383 total yards) spoiled Mack Brown's final game (at Texas, anyway).

2019: Texas 38, No. 11 Utah 10 — Sam Ehlinger's 4 total TDs were outshined by Joseph Ossai's 9 tackles, 6 tackles for loss and 3 sacks.