AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Steve Sarkisian’s biggest decision of training camp was picking a quarterback. The new Texas coach’s biggest priority for the season is likely making sure his best running back is getting the ball as much as possible.
Texas opens the Sarkisian era Saturday when the No. 21 Longhorns host No. 23 Louisiana-Lafayette. Texas will hit the field with new quarterback Hudson Card handing off to one of hottest names of the season: Bijan Robinson.
Robinson is getting a lot of early attention and praise as a preseason All-American after a freshman season in which he ran for 703 yards. Most of it is based on his reputation coming out of high school as a five-star recruit, and the way he closed 2020 with 355 yards on 19 carries — a blistering 18.7 -yard average — in Texas’ final two games.
That Robinson, a 6-foot, 215-pound package of shifty power and speed, got only 19 carries in those two games is exactly what bugged Texas fans about former coach Tom Herman, who didn’t give him the ball enough, and is exactly what Sarkisian has promised to fix.
Sarkisian, who brought the “All gas, no brakes” mantra to Texas, has set a target of about 20 carries or touches per game for Robinson, who aims to be just the second Longhorn to rush for 1,000 yards in a season in 14 years. Robinson carried the ball 10 or more times in just four games last season.
“I’m super excited,” Robinson said. “”I’ll do whatever it takes. In this offseason, I worked as hard as I could to get in football shape and be ready for it.”
Bottle up Robinson and Louisiana-Lafayette could have an upset in the making. The Ragin’ Cajuns are ranked at the start of the season for the first time in program history. That’s because they return 20 starters from last season’s 10-1 team that opened with a road win at Iowa State.
Louisiana certainly won’t be afraid of Texas, but the Ragin’ Cajuns had a tough week as their home state was battered by Hurricane Ida and practice was disrupted for two days and players attempted to reach or find help for family in areas hit hard by the storm.
“We’ve got a lot of folks from over in the areas that were significantly affected,” coach Billy Napier said. “The most important thing is the healthy and safety of all the people involved.”
Sarkisian reflected this week on Saturday’s approaching kickoff and the reboot of his coaching career. The former head coach at Washington and Southern California was fired by USC during the 2015 season and later went into alcohol rehabilitation treatment.
He was the offensive coordinator at Alabama last season during the Crimson Tide’s national title run.
“Nobody likes getting fired… That’s not fun for your, not fun for your family,” Sarkisian said of his dismissal from USC. “To be back in this seat, I’ve got a great deal of appreciation for the opportunity… For me, I feel like this is right where I’m supposed to be at this time in my life.”
Card brings a lot of buzz to his first start and just as much uncertainty. Card hardly played last season and has just one career completion. But he beat out Casey Thompson, who looked like the sure starter for 2021 when he came on in relief of injured Sam Ehlinger in the Alamo Bowl and threw four touchdown passes.
Sarkisian said he will play both in the opener, but that may be as much about keeping Thompson happy as anything. Thompson considered transferring after the 2018 season and now finds himself waiting on the bench again.
PROTECTING THE BALL
Card will have be careful against a veteran Louisiana secondary that produced 16 interceptions last season, including four by safety Bralen Trahan. Sarkisian said Card’s ability to avoid big mistakes was a reason he was picked to be the starter.
EXPERIENCE UNDER CENTER
Texas has question marks at quarterback. Louisiana-Lafayette doesn’t. Levi Lewis is 22-6 as a starter, ranks third in program history in passing yards (6,286) and just needs 11 touchdowns passes to set the school career record. And he’s good in the clutch. Louisiana went 6-1 in games decided one score last season.
FEEDING ON SACKS
Texas has been in search of a dominant defensive tackle for several years. Senior Keondre Coburn, who at 6-2, 342-pound goes by the nickname “Snacks,” said he wants to be the Longhorns’ sack leader this season after getting just one in 2020. And he wants a reward if he does it.
“If it is me, I better get a big meal or something,” Coburn said.
DICKER THE KICKER
Texas kicker Cameron Dicker will start the season with triple duty, handling kickoffs and field goals, and adding first-team punter to his gameday responsibilities. He was 15 of 21 on field goals last season and averaged 43.6 yards on eight punts when pressed into duty because of an injury. He has three career field goals longer than 50 yards.
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