- Dave Wilson is an editor for ESPN.com since 2010. He previously worked at The Dallas Morning News, San Diego Union-Tribune and Las Vegas Sun.
Moments before Bijan Robinson made the first start of his highly anticipated sophomore season at Texas, something felt different.
The former five-star recruit — the Arizona high school legend who ran for 7,036 yards and 114 touchdowns, both state records — was making just his seventh start for Texas and already owned school records for yards per carry in a game (19.1 against Kansas State) and in a season (8.2 yards).
But this was a new feeling: Robinson was nervous.
“I’ve never [played] in front of 100,000 people,” said Robinson, whose first year at Texas featured small crowds because of COVID-19 restrictions.
But he found reassurance from a familiar face: legendary Longhorns running back Ricky Williams.
“He just said, ‘Go ball out and represent for the guys who have been here before you,'” Robinson said.
Robinson doesn’t need any history lessons on those who came before him. They’re all around him.
In every aspect of his football life, Robinson has legends or direct ties to his idols as sounding boards, whether it’s Williams’ brotherhood, coach Steve Sarkisian’s connections to his idol, Reggie Bush, or business advice from Earl Campbell. If Robinson aspires to their level of greatness, he can ask firsthand how to get there.
Both Williams and Campbell, the Longhorns’ two Heisman Trophy winners, were on the field before the Louisiana game on Sept. 4. Their field. The turf that Robinson was standing on had just been rededicated as Campbell-Williams Field, a permanent reminder, along with their two statues, of their larger-than-life standing on campus.
Two icons, two running backs, two of the only people in the world who could understand the great expectations facing Robinson, who entered the season with the best odds among non-quarterbacks (25-1 at Caesars Sportsbook) to win this year’s Heisman.
But more urgently, the Longhorns’ season could be dependent on where Robinson’s legs take it. First-year coach Sarkisian’s momentum at Texas could, too. That’s another bond Robinson has with Campbell and Williams, who both had their best seasons for a coach who didn’t recruit them.
In 1977, when new Longhorns coach Fred Akers took over after Darrell Royal’s retirement, he ditched the famed wishbone for the I-formation to take advantage of Campbell’s skills. The Longhorns improved from 5-5-1 to 11-1, Campbell rushed for a Southwest Conference-record 1,744 yards and 19 touchdowns, leading the nation in rushing and scoring, and he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide.
When Mack Brown replaced John Mackovic in 1998, he re-recruited Williams and convinced him to return for his senior season, then built his offense around him. Williams would go on to run for 2,124 yards and 27 TDs that season, winning the Heisman and earning Brown instant credibility in Austin. It also helped jump-start his recruiting machine.
“When the coach believes and Texas has a star running back, special things happen,” Williams said.
Robinson’s versatile skill set allows Sarkisian to believe, a good fit for a coach who makes running backs a centerpiece of his scheme. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, in his six full seasons as a head coach and two seasons as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, Sarkisian’s running backs have been ranked in the top three in total touches in their conferences each year, with all of them surpassing 225. Robinson had 102 touches last season as a freshman under Tom Herman.
In Texas’ 38-18 win over No. 23 Louisiana on Saturday, the Longhorns ran 68 offensive plays. Robinson got the ball on 24 of them, running for 103 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and catching four passes for 73 yards and a touchdown before giving way to backups. All of last season, he had career highs of 16 carries (in a loss to Iowa State) and three catches (against Kansas State).
He caught a touchdown pass on a wheel route out of the backfield, and even lined up in the slot, showing how dangerous he can be as a receiver.
“I go against that guy every day, and when I tell you it is a struggle, Bijan makes us work,” said Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, who had 13 tackles against Louisiana. “I felt like that’s one reason why we’re so good at tackling, because let me tell you, trying to tackle Bijan every day in practice is not the easiest thing to do. He’s amazing.”
Robinson said he studied another Heisman winner, Bush, to develop his style and work on his versatility. He wears No. 5 as an homage to Bush, who wore the number at USC.
“He didn’t waste any time trying to break down defenders,” Robinson said. “He just broke them down quick and got north and south immediately.”
Sarkisian, of course, saw Bush firsthand as USC’s quarterbacks coach during Bush’s glory days with the Trojans. He knows what Bush did, how he did it, and how to utilize Robinson’s abilities in a similar fashion, and he can envision Robinson playing like Bush in his offense.
“I always said Reggie had such a unique ability to put his foot in the ground, one cut and get vertical and get back to top-end speed,” Sarkisian said. “Guys have tried to do it before, but very few could do it that way, and I think Bijan is a unique guy that can play at top-end speed, put his foot in the ground, make someone miss. Those one-cuts are violent. You almost feel the ground when they put that foot in it. So they are unique that way for sure.”
Robinson does everything fast. He answers questions rapid-fire, punctuating the response with a “yeah” almost before they’re finished being asked. He offers insightful responses that show off his personality, like saying after the game Saturday that his first touchdown catch was a matchup exploit based on something Sarkisian saw on the previous play.
“I don’t want to give all the secrets out,” Sarkisian said with a smile about that comment on Monday.
Robinson’s enthusiasm, potential and platform make him one of college football’s best bets to cash in on the new name, image and likeness rules. In addition to some deals such as a clothing line collaboration and selling personalized Cameo videos for $189 (up from $100 initially), Robinson has already taken advantage of a very Texas opportunity, partnering with one of the state’s best barbecue spots.
In his new business concerns, as well, Robinson has found a mentor in a Heisman winner.
For more than 40 years, Campbell has been in the NIL business, including his legendary Skoal commercial. Earl Campbell’s Hot Links are a grocery-store staple, with Campbell on the package wearing a cowboy hat and holding a football on his hip.
When Robinson was trying to get a handle on business opportunities, he turned to Campbell, who invited him to his Austin home to walk through his options.
“I told him there’s a lot of money to be made in this,” Campbell said. “What the NCAA is doing with these young men is the proper thing to do. When I came to college at UT from Tyler, Texas, I left a mother, six brothers and four sisters. There’s no way my mother could have helped me in college. If I would’ve had something like this in college, it would’ve made a big difference in my life. The NCAA has gotten rich enough. Guys like myself have made them billions.”
Robinson, who was in awe of Campbell’s trophy room and memorabilia, said Campbell made sure he understood that you will be judged by the company you keep and to always make sure you’re doing things you believe in.
“He’s a role model for me in the NIL stuff,” Robinson said. “He did all those business deals in the NFL, and those are the same kind of things I’m trying to do right now.”
Campbell is the no-nonsense of the two, a Texas icon who doesn’t pull any punches and is an almost mythical figure graced with otherworldly strength. Williams, who broke Tony Dorsett’s all-time Division I rushing record while at Texas (since broken by former Wisconsin back Ron Dayne), offered a blend of speed and power to which Robinson aspires. And Robinson, like Williams, has a more contemplative style.
His pregame hype music, he said, is sounds of the ocean, or the “Watercolor” station on Pandora.
“I love to listen to soft music and just get my mind elsewhere,” he said. “It’s the music you hear in elevators, like smooth jazz.”
Robinson and Williams also followed a similar path to Texas stardom. They’re both outsiders, coming from Pac-12 country — Robinson from Arizona, Williams from San Diego.
“When someone is in the right place at the right time, you can feel there’s something special about them,” Williams said. “I thought I needed to be at Texas. That’s why I made the trip. And I sense something with Bijan, one of the top-rated running backs in the nation coming from Tucson. It just has that feel to it.”
And like Williams before him, Robinson has already been crowned as the Next Great Texas Running Back. Williams was nicknamed “Little Earl” early in his Texas career. Last year, Williams himself dubbed Robinson “Little Ricky” on the Longhorn Network.
“I threw it out there because when the name comes from inside the circle, I think it means more than when it comes from outside the circle,” Williams said. “You can say a lot of things about expectations. But the reason I came to Texas was because of expectations. The reason I came to Texas was to win the Heisman Trophy, to be special. And so, me giving him that name is me telling him that: That’s my expectation.”
When Robinson and Williams finally had time to hang out for several hours this summer at an event in Arizona, Robinson said there was a quick bond.
“It was just like having a big brother,” Robinson said. “We saw each other and it was instant love. We talked for about four hours on what he’s done here and how he can help me. He taught me the ropes in the little time that we were together. It was really inspiring.”
On Saturday, the Longhorns visit old Southwest Conference rival Arkansas (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), and Robinson figures to be a key factor.
Last year, the Razorbacks allowed 192.1 rushing yards per game, 93rd nationally, and were 106th in total yards per game, allowing 451.7. Robinson gained 5.8 yards after contact per carry last season, second best in the country, while Arkansas allowed 103.2 yards after contact per game.
Robinson has insisted all offseason that he had no issues with his limited opportunities last season, saying he always wants to do whatever his coaches need from him. It wasn’t all that unusual for him in high school to get only 10 to 15 carries because he reeled off such big runs his team would get a lead and he’d sit out the second half.
But it’s clear Robinson is ready and willing to take on a bigger role.
“As I talk to Bijan, one of the things he’s most excited about is Sark has told him, ‘We’re gonna give you the ball,'” Williams said.
On the final Sunday before the season started, Robinson and wide receiver Jordan Whittington made an NIL appearance, signing autographs in nearby New Braunfels, Texas. As they signed items for Longhorns fans and took pictures with kids flashing the “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign, Campbell made an unscheduled appearance and sat at the table alongside the players.
“These college coaches don’t seem to want guys around these young men like a Ricky Williams or an Earl Campbell,” said Campbell, who frequently attends Longhorns practice. “I don’t know if it’s intimidating to them. But one thing about Sarkisian, he reached out his hand, and I think that made the players feel comfortable and it made me feel comfortable.”
Heisman chatter and lofty expectations can be a lot to handle for a sophomore. But Williams thinks Robinson is equipped to handle the noise.
“I don’t want to put the pressure on him, but he already knows,” Williams said. “People would ask me if I felt a lot of pressure. I’d say no, because the pressure I put on myself is much greater than the pressure anyone else could put on me. I feel like Bijan has that kind of confidence.”
“It’s just doing something that you love,” he said. “There can’t be pressure if you love it and God gave you the ability to do it.”
That doesn’t mean he won’t hear an invitation from Campbell to join an elite club. At the autograph table, Campbell pointed out that he saw a photo of Texas players with his Heisman, and he offered his own suggestion with a smile.
“Why don’t you just go on ahead and get you one for yourself?” Campbell said.
Williams thinks it’s time, too, which is why he thought it was important to find Robinson before Saturday’s game.
“When I came up to him, I said, ‘I’m here for you.’ Meaning, yeah, the field was being named after me, but the reason I was showing up at the gate was because I was here to see him,” Williams said. “I just think he’s got that special once-in-a-generation kind of talent. They say a generation lasts about 20 years. There’s about 20 years between Earl’s Heisman and mine. And it’s been a little over 20 years since mine. It’s time for Texas to have that once-in-a-generation type of player.”
The two men whose names grace the turf under Robinson’s cleats believe, which makes Robinson that much more driven to leave his own mark.
“On the field that’s named after them, I can try to do the same thing for my legacy,” Robinson said. “Maybe one day, I can join them with my name on that stadium.”
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