Zone Read: Bijan Robinson Unplugged

Arizona Sports News online

Bijan Robinson is as humble and grounded off the field, as he is lethal on it.

The Tucson Salpointe legend, widely considered the top prep running back in Arizona history, capped off his true freshman season at the University of Texas being named the Alamo Bowl Offensive MVP in the Longhorns’ 55-23 win over Colorado in December.

“Zone Read” sat down earlier this week with the Tucson native to discuss a wide-range of topics.

How have you adjusted to life going from Tucson to Austin? “It’s been awesome for me. I think Tucson is a nice city, a great city. I think of Austin as like a mini version of LA. More west coast in the South. It’s been really fun to experience different food places. They have Tex-Mex here, not Mexican food. The people here are really supportive and they’re nice people. They just all want to get to know you and have a conversation. It’s been a really nice transition from Tucson to here.”

What about going from quaint little Salpointe Catholic to UT where, when it’s not COVID, the on-campus enrollment is around 58,000 students? “It’s been a blessing of a transition because at Salpointe, of course it’s smaller, but Texas is at a whole new scale. During this pandemic I don’t get the full experience of the school and the city but I feel like it’s been good. It’s been fun since I’ve been here. It’s just been a blessing how everything paved out. Getting to see new things and meet new people. It’s been fun.”

From an academic standpoint, how much did Salpointe prepare you academically because UT definitely provides a high-level education? “Salpointe is a hard education. In my four years I had to take all seven classes throughout the day and they were all hard. I feel it over-prepared me for college. When I got to college, it was easy. Of course, Texas is hard but it’s not crazy-difficult where you couldn’t handle it at Salpointe. You have four classes here but I had seven classes at Salpointe.”

Have you picked a major yet? “Yes, I’m going to major in acting right now. I might switch to film and television but that’s my major right now.”

I know you met UT alum Matthew McConaughey on a visit when you were at Salpointe. Have you asked him for some acting advice? “Yes, I have!” 

How much did [former Notre Dame Prep star, now UT wide receiver] Jake Smith help you when you got to Austin knowing that there was another Arizona kid who played on offense? “We met at the award events and the things that were up in Phoenix [in high school]. When I got to Texas, he taught me everything about Texas. The food. The area. The people. He told me everything, including his experiences at Texas. So, ever since then we’ve become close and all throughout the season we’ve just become closer and closer. He’s been a real help for me ever since I’ve been here.”

On the field, last year as a true freshman you had a breakout game against K-State and then everyone saw what you did in the Alamo Bowl with over 200 total yards and the three touchdowns against Colorado.When did college football start to “slow down” for you last fall? “Definitely in the second half of the season. I would say after the West Virginia game (12 carries, 113 yards, 2 catches, 38 yards) everything became a lot slower and I just adjusted to everything really quick because in the first half of the season I was just trying to get my feet wet. When they kind of just threw me out there in the second half of the season, that’s when everything just started to click. It’s like I was in high school. I got used to the speed.”

You arrived at UT at a unique time and got to play a full season with one of the best, and most respected, quarterbacks ever to play for the Horns in Sam Ehlinger who is now off to try to earn a spot in the NFL. What was that like sharing the backfield with him? “He took me under his wing from the beginning. I remember the second week, we went to breakfast together and he was preparing me for all the things that were about to start happening – with football, with school, with life. How to handle all that stuff. Throughout the season we always used to stretch together and we would go eat right after. He would always give me different tips on how to handle myself in a positive light, how to keep myself grounded. Then in the second half of the season when everything started to look pretty good, he would sit down with me and try to keep me ready for anything I needed to know. He’s been a huge help for me ever since I’ve been here.”

On campus, obviously everyone knows Sam, but are you now hearing the whispers of people saying, ‘Hey, that’s Bijan Robinson?’  “Yup. They’ll say it out loud. They’ll say my full name [laughing]. It’s not just Bijan anymore. They’ll say, ‘Bijan Robinson.’ It’s fine. I know God put me in this position for a reason and obviously to do everything I can to put a smile on these people’s faces. It’s been a fun experience getting to see all that.”

UT’s running backs coach, Coach [Stan] Drayton was really the one who recruited you to Austin. What sort of conversations have you had with him this off-season as you ramp up to spring football? “We’ve just talked about new gameplays and new schemes and how we’re going to attack with this coaching staff. I love this coaching staff. I love Sark [new head coach Steve Sarkisian]. He recruited me when he was at Alabama. We have a relationship. We just have that same philosophy that we’re going to try to be the best in the [running backs] room and that we’re going to outwork everybody. It’s a blessing that they retained Coach Drayton because who he is as a person, but also his experiences as a coach.”

One of my favorite things in getting to know you Bijan is your humility. You’re usually the best player on the field but you never act like it. Texas is rich in running back history: Earl Campbell, Ricky Williams, Priest Holmes, etc. I’ve heard the “Little Ricky” comparisons already. How are you staying humble and grounded with all the hype surrounding you going into your sophomore season this fall?  “I’ve just got to keep the same as it’s always been. I know there’s a lot of hype out there with the Heisman [Trophy]. I don’t listen to all that stuff because that stuff can get to you and if you start listening to it you’ll start not working as hard and getting comfortable. God has a plan and I just have to keep following it. Coach Drayton has been a great help. He’s kept me level-headed. I don’t need to listen to anything great that comes out of anyone. I try to think of everything as a bad situation and I have to outwork that bad situation. I just have to keep being the same as I’ve always been. Even my grandparents have helped me throughout this whole time to just ‘stay me’ and keep being humble.”

Salpointe had a really good season last year advancing to the Open Division Playoffs again. Did you keep a close eye on what was happening back in Tucson?  “I did. I’d make sure every Friday I’d see the stats and make sure how they were doing. I’m glad they had a great season.”

Everyone knows Texas high school football is legendary but with the rise of the talent level here in Arizona, do you ever talk up what’s happening back in your hometown state when it comes to putting impact players at the Power 5 level? “All the time. The guys on [my team] are like, ‘Does Arizona have talent?’ I say, ‘Yes! Arizona has talent!’ I know we’re sort of overlooked at times with Texas, California and all these big states but I just try to tell everybody, don’t sleep on Arizona because we’re producing a lot of talent and they haven’t even seen all of us play yet with Kelee [Ringo] and a bunch of different guys that may have gotten injured. We’re producing a lot of great players and I just hope, from that class of 2020, even more players come out of [Arizona] with all that hype.”

One of those impact players from the Class of 2020 is your close friend and former Salpointe teammate Lathan Ransom who made some big plays at safety last season at Ohio State. How proud are you of what he accomplished and how frequently do you stay in touch? “We talk all the time. We talk before games. Even the game before he was about to start [the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern], I was like, ‘Bro just go in there and have fun. You have the gifts to do this. You were built for this.’ He told me his experiences before he got out there in his first game. I just said, ‘You’re gunna ball. It’s different than high school but just think of it as a different stage, at a different level.’ That’s what he did.”

“We talked before the National Championship [against Alabama] and I was like, ‘You’re covering some top receivers that are going to the NFL. You just need to stay calm and just keep being you and everything is going to be alright.’”

Appreciate you sharing that incredible story. You both have never appeared to be in any sort of environment where “the lights were too bright” when it came to football. Does it help having those honest conversations about driving one another to be great? “He and I, even in practice, having that competition every day – having him in my ear and me in his ear, it built us for [who] we’re playing against now. Even when we got to campus, not having each other, that helped us a lot because we saw the same type of competition at this level. As we kept learning and growing, everything started to click for both of us. We get on the phone and we’re happy for each other because we see all the work we did in high school is starting to pay off in college.”

Whether at practice or when you guys lifted and worked out together, was it more trash-talking or encouragement when you two were together? “Working out, it was always trying to one-up one another. I would say I had him in most of it [laughing]. He [got] me in some different things and I would get so mad. He’d put it in my face like, ‘Bijan, you can’t do this better than me!’…it’s always fun competition. We never make it personal because we’ve been doing it since seventh grade. It’s just fun competition going up against him all the time.”

 

 

A Valley native, Eric has had a passion for the Arizona sports scene since an early age. He has covered some of the biggest events including Super Bowls, national championships and the NBA and MLB playoffs in his near 20 years in local media.