Gameplan: The challenge of featuring Bijan Robinson

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It’s obvious to everyone around Texas football what the strategy will be for winning games in 2021, year one of the Steve Sarkisian era. You had only to watch a few of the late season games to have a clear sense of who on this roster a new staff would be looking to emphasize in order to win games.

As a card-carrying member of the “running backs don’t matter that much” club, I’m willing to acknowledge some exceptions, like Bijan Robinson. There are running backs who can make a substantial difference to an offense, usually as force multipliers for a functioning run game system but occasionally also as erasers who make things work which otherwise wouldn’t. Patrick Mahomes, up until he faced the Tampa Bay pass-rush in front of 2-man under with athletic linebackers in coverage, made the Chiefs’ offense work even amidst O-line issues. Bijan Robinson can make a run game work even when the system isn’t functioning on a high level.

This is only a three-yard gain on first and 10 but there’s a world of difference between second and seven or second and 15. Bijan has a rare blend of agility, speed, and power at 220 pounds (to say nothing of his hands) which makes him exceptionally difficult to tackle. Hypothetically, a player like Bijan operating in space in a spread concept is a dominant weapon.

Therein lies the rub. The spread offense is a double-edged sword. If you space your opponent out and dare them to allocate numbers in one area of the field vs another, you run the risk they’ll make the obvious choice to take space and opportunities away from a player like Bijan Robinson. Texas’ mission as an offense this offseason is to develop a unit which complements Bijan and guarantees he can’t be taken out of games.

Spread run game philosophy

In 2011, Sarkisian’s third year in Seattle, UW played in the Alamo Bowl at the end of the year against the RG3 Baylor Bears. The Huskies had something nasty prepared for Baylor’s defense, they’d already set school records for touchdown passes and were able to light up the Bears for 56 points. Unfortunately, Art Briles hit harder and the Bears scored 67 while handing Sark the L and a taste of the future of football.

I’m guessing this was a formative experience for today’s Sark because the following year saw Washington begin to employ RPOs as a consistent, foundational piece of their offensive strategy. In 2013 they really started to get it right and went 9-4, opening the season by blowing out Boise State 38-6.

Here they are running “the touchdown play” against Boise early in the rout:

And here’s the more recent glance route RPO executed with a young John Ross lined up in the boundary slot:

Interestingly enough, John Ross was the one who really powered the Huskies to the playoffs in 2015. He was around because Sarkisian (who left after 2013) was already in the business of stockpiling under 200-pound receivers who could run 4.4 or faster.

This game began with a lot of passing, mostly on RPOs, and quarterback Keith Price finished 23-of-31 on the day for 324 yards at 10.5 ypa with two touchdowns to a sole interception. The passing early on opened up the run game for running back Bishop Sankey, who had 25 carries for 161 yards at 6.4 ypc with two scores. Here’s how their numbers looked on the season in comparison to some of the recent Tom Herman Texas squads.

Herman’s offenses ran more plays, were less efficient with the run and the pass, and asked a good deal more of the quarterback than Sarkisian’s 2013 Husky team (or subsequent Sark squads). Beyond the much heavier load in the passing game Ehlinger took on in comparison to Keith Price, there’s also the unlisted run game production where Ehlinger was taking a beating and Price (and especially other Sark quarterbacks) were much less involved.

The underlying philosophy is different. Sarkisian was typically throwing the ball to set up the run. Tom Herman viewed tempo, RPOs, and quarterback runs as means to control the ball in the box. Whereas Herman might say, “we’ll line up faster and then see how they do stopping the run,” Sarkisian leaned more into the true spread philosophy of applying stress down the field or on the perimeter to shake defenders out of the box and allow the run game to get going.

Herman was never as comfortable with RPOs, disliking giving defenses choices and taking initiative away from his offense. The Longhorns ended up running a fair number of them but typically only for the most trusted wideouts, and many receivers never earned the trust to receive regular targets. Texas was very conspicuously missing the boundary RPO arrow in the quiver in losses against Baylor and Iowa State in 2019 when Collin Johnson was out with injury.

Clearly Sarkisian’s approach has been more efficient not only for the running backs but the quarterback as well. Good spacing generated by the threat of the forward pass is simply more effective than tempo or quarterback-option for setting up the run game.

Ensuring space or blockers for the running back

Unlike Herman, Sarkisian centers the run game around the running back. Sam Ehlinger led Texas in carries each of the last two seasons and was the leader or tied with the leader in rushing touchdowns each of the last three seasons. Herman’s reasoning here was sound, if you feature the quarterback as the runner you’re guaranteed a numbers advantage at the point of attack, Bill Snyder’s run at K-State was built on the same principle. It’s a hard knock life for your passer though as the accumulated hits and damage can limit his effectiveness when throwing the ball.

If your goal on offense is for the run game to be centered around the running back then your offensive structure needs to be able to guarantee space OR blockers so the back isn’t just running into a wall.

The RPO game doesn’t necessarily guarantee space for the running back, but it should ultimately arrive there if the offense executes them properly. Sarkisian has always put a premium on having explosive athletes like John Ross, Nelson Agholor, or DeVonta Smith to receive the ball on pass options and force defenses to yield space in the box.

Most every defensive coach likes to talk a tough game about stopping the run but when the offense is averaging 10 yards per pass and routinely flipping the ball to 4.4 sprinters in space, coaches will start to back down a little on their guiding principle. Or else they play man coverage in order to ensure they can keep numbers in the box on your running back. Then the stakes of the game just go up and the offense can run dropback or play-action passes and potentially turn those 10-yard RPO gains into 40+ yard scoring plays.

Finding feature weapons in the wide receiver corps and getting the quarterback up to speed in the RPO, play-action, and man-beating game is the essential task of the offseason for Sarkisian. In the same fashion NBA teams aim to surround LeBron James, Luka Doncic, or James Harden with three-point shooters to guarantee them space to attack the rim, Texas will seek to get speed and pass-options going to keep defenses from loading the box against Bijan Robinson.

Then there are the moments where you can’t guarantee space, such as third and two or second and goal. Defenses will virtually always aim to outnumber the run and deny space in those instances, which is partly why Texas so frequently used the unbalanced “touchdown play” with tempo in order to try and pick up gains before the defense could fully get set.

Sarkisian has never totally lost touch with his under center, pro-style roots and maintained some short-yardage packages within the Alabama offense for these situations.

The playside tight end here is 6-foot-4, 298-pound converted offensive lineman Kendall Randolph. He blocks down while the guard leads to kick out the edge. Then the Tide have 6-foot-3, 240-pound converted linebacker Joshua McMillon serve as the fullback and lead through the hole. Texas fans may recall the spread passing-happy Colt McCoy Longhorns also maintained short-yardage packages featuring extra offensive linemen and guys like Roy Miller and Lamarr Houston at fullback. There’s a reason Cody Johnson is tied for fifth in all-time career rushing touchdowns as a Longhorn with Steve Worster and Jamaal Charles (Sam Ehlinger is tied for eighth with Jim Bertelsen). Greg Davis and Mack Brown were eager to protect Colt McCoy from unnecessary dirty work to keep him healthy… and it almost worked.

If you can’t guarantee the defense won’t stick extra, unblocked defenders around in the box (the magic numbers are six if you don’t have a tight end, seven if you do, and eight if you have two tight ends) with the threat of RPOs and play-action then you need to put extra blockers on the field. Texas is in good shape to have a high-functioning 12 personnel or perhaps even 13 personnel package featuring Cade Brewer, Jared Wiley, Brayden Liebrock, and maybe Ja’Tavion Sanders. They’d also benefit from choosing a sixth offensive lineman or maybe a hard-nosed defender to get into the action as well as a fullback or short-yardage tight end. None of Texas’ tight ends are brilliant blockers with Brewer probably the most solid so while those packages could probably do damage at tempo, Texas would need a power set as well.

Bijan Robinson is a known quality for 2021, there’s no serious doubt over whether he can be one of the most dominant football players in the conference. This factor in the Longhorn season is as obvious to their opponents as it is to the new coaching staff, so can Texas build a supporting cast to help Bijan run wild anyways?

Cover photo courtesy of the Alamo Bowl

History major, football theorist.