Longhorns focused on football after off-season of turbulence, new law

Carter Yates, Sports Reporter

Sophomore running back Bijan Robinson didn’t stutter at the 2021 Big 12 Media Days on Thursday when he said last year’s Texas football team didn’t handle off-the-field distractions well. 

“It’s a lot of player-led things going on with this (year’s) team,” Robinson said. “Last year we kind of had a lot of distractions — from COVID to social injustice, (and) so many different things — that were going on and taking our mind off of football. We would be so individual and be so separated in our team, and I feel it hurt us in a lot of situations.”

But as Steve Sarkisian pointed out, it’s not like all distractions evaporated when he took over as Texas’ head football coach Jan. 2.

For starters, Sarkisian didn’t actually touch down in Austin until a week after he was hired since he was coaching in the national championships as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. 

Once the players arrived for the spring semester, Sarkisian contracted COVID-19 and was forced to wait even longer before he could meet his team in person. 

Factor in that the University was shut down for over a week due to Winter Storm Uri, the fact the Longhorns were forced to halt spring practice after one day due to another COVID-19 outbreak and the tragic death of sophomore linebacker Jake Ehlinger in May, and Sarkisian has already dealt with his fair share of adversity in just over six months on the job. 

But the Longhorns have practice in handling adversity after a whirlwind 2020, and Sarkisian credited his players for their mindset through all of the challenges.

“We’ve been through a lot early on in this process, and through all of that, you learn about the leadership on your team, you learn about the perseverance on your team,” Sarkisian said. “I’ve been so impressed by our players on that front. I’m not talking X’s and O’s and any of that, I’m just talking about a mindset and a mentality that I think our team has brought.”

Now, another potential distraction from football looms with the passing of the name, image and likeness law which allows athletes to profit from endorsements and sponsorships. Robinson was quick to cash in on his popularity among college football fans, signing on as a Raising Cane’s ambassador and setting up a Cameo profile, where he is paid to make personalized shoutouts to fans. Nevertheless, Robinson assured that both his and the team’s focus is on football.

“We know that we can’t just make this the main focus. The main focus is obviously football and school first, and let the NIL stuff come as it comes,” Robinson said. “It can be a distraction, and it can hurt who you are as a team.” 

Through all of these external factors, Sarkisian and his coaching staff have managed to make inroads with the team’s veteran players. Junior defensive lineman Keondre Coburn said defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has earned the unit’s trust with his knowledge of the game.

“When I first saw (Kwiatkowski) and I first heard him, I said, ‘Yeah he’s quiet. This isn’t gonna work out,’” Coburn said. “But his mindset of the game and the way he schemes and the way he tells us what to do on the field, I love it.”

It’s not just on the defensive side of the ball that Texas has made strides. Coburn cited that Kyle Flood, co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, has revamped the Longhorns in the trenches.

“Man, Kyle (Flood), I don’t know what he did to them,” Coburn said of the offensive line. “(They have) more aggression. (Redshirt freshman) Jake (Majors) is really nice. (Junior offensive tackle) Christian (Jones) has improved his game 100 times (over). (Jones is) by far the best O-lineman I’ve seen right now.”

As the season looms ever closer, Sarkisian is confident that his team is close-knit and has bought into his culture, and that means much more to him than the fact the Longhorns weren’t picked to compete in the Big 12 Championship in the Media Preseason Poll.

“I really don’t care about preseason rankings. They don’t mean anything,” Sarkisian said. “Maybe we shouldn’t play this year because we’re supposed to finish third, I don’t know. … The reality of it is, if we listen to those things then we shouldn’t play the games.”