It was an audible gasp.

Bijan Robinson was on the sidelines of Texas’ spring game. The Longhorn legend was being interviewed during the broadcast when the subject of the new backfield duo of CJ Baxter and Jaydon Blue came up. As Robinson answered the question, Baxter caught a swing pass that appeared to be going nowhere on the short side of the field. Three Texas defenders surrounded the second-year tailback.

Unfortunately for them, they went 0-for-3. Baxter evaded them all and put the exclamation point on the run by blowing up a defender who awaited just beyond the yard to gain.

Hence, the gasp.

The Texas crowd, which has seen no shortage of elite running backs, was blown away by Baxter in that moment. Sure, it’s the type of play that you’d expect to see from someone who came into college as the No. 1 running back recruit in his class. Still, though.

Let’s take it a step further — that’s the type of play I expect to see from someone who will enter the SEC and win the rushing title.

That’s right. Baxter is my pick to be the SEC’s leading rusher in 2024.

(I did a full breakdown of the returning running backs in the SEC, which you can watch here:)

No, it’s not just because of 1 play in a spring game. Yes, I realize that Baxter is a piece of that aforementioned 1-2 punch with Jaydon Blue. That’s the only potential deterrent for Baxter’s SEC rushing title bid, though it’s not one that scared me off. Why?

History tells us that an SEC leading rusher can have a teammate get 90-150 carries and still earn the crown by season’s end:

  • 2023 — Brady Cook (Mizzou), 113 carries; Cody Schrader won title
  • 2022 — Zach Evans (Ole Miss), 144 carries; Quinshon Judkins won title
  • 2021 — Elijah Young (Mizzou), 37 carries; Tyler Badie won title
  • 2020 — Brian Robinson Jr. (Alabama), 91 carries; Najee Harris won title
  • 2019 — Asim Rose (Kentucky), 149 carries; Lynn Bowden won title
  • 2018 — Kellen Mond (Texas A&M), 149 carries; Trayveon Williams won title
  • 2017 — Jarrett Stidham (Auburn), 103 carries; Kerryon Johnson won title
  • 2016 — Leonard Fournette (LSU), 129 carries; Derrius Guice won title
  • 2015 — Kenyan Drake (Alabama), 77 carries; Derrick Henry won title
  • 2014 — Nick Marshall (Auburn), 153 carries; Cameron Artis-Payne won title
  • 2013 — Nick Marshall (Auburn), 172 carries; Tre Mason won title
  • 2012 — Ben Malena (Texas A&M), 138 carries; Johnny Manziel won title
  • 2011 — Eddie Lacy (Alabama), 95 carries; Trent Richardson won title
  • 2010 — Michael Dyer (Auburn), 182 carries; Cam Newton won title
  • 2009 — Trent Richardson (Alabama), 144 carries; Mark Ingram won title

So that’s 13 of the past 15 seasons in which the SEC’s leading rusher had a teammate with at least 90 carries. Blue has never had more than 10 carries in a game even when Texas dealt with injuries in the backfield in 2023 (more on that in a bit). He can average 10-11 carries and still not prevent Baxter from winning a rushing title.

At the same time, volume is key for an SEC leading rusher. Even in this passing world, the SEC’s 4 leading rushers of the 2020s all averaged at least 19 carries per game.

One of those guys was Najee Harris, who averaged 19.3 carries in Steve Sarkisian’s Alabama offense in 2020. Harris was the first of 3 Sarkisian-coached running backs in a 4-year stretch who were the first drafted at the position. That includes the aforementioned Robinson, as well as the guy Baxter is replacing, Jonathon Brooks.

In 2023, it was Baxter — not Brooks — who actually RB1 for Texas to open the season. He was the first true freshman to do that at Texas since Ricky Williams in 1995. But Baxter got banged up in each of Texas’ first 2 games, which gave way for Brooks to step in and become an 1,100-yard rusher. It was a late-season injury to Brooks that then opened the door back for Baxter, who took advantage of the opportunity. He finished the season with 659 yards.

There aren’t many 18-year-olds who rack up 100 scrimmage yards in a Playoff game. Baxter isn’t built like an 18-year-old. He’s built like Robinson and Harris, both of whom became Doak Walker Award winners for Sarkisian. Shoot, even with a crowded backfield like Texas had last year, Brooks still averaged 17 carries per game.

Baxter probably needs to get even more volume to win an SEC rushing title (6 out of the past 7 winners averaged at least 19 carries per game). But that Brooks-less sample size suggested that can happen.

  • vs. TCU — 18 carries on 31 snaps
  • at Iowa State — 20 carries on 51 snaps
  • vs. Texas Tech — 9 carries on 31 snaps
  • vs. Oklahoma State — 13 carries on 46 snaps
  • vs. Washington — 9 carries on 38 snaps

Mind you, the Texas Tech game was a 57-7 laugher that was over by halftime while the Playoff game against Washington was one that Texas never led and trailed for the final 25 minutes. That wasn’t exactly a high-volume rushing game, yet Baxter still had 103 scrimmage yards and a touchdown.

Again, he did that as an 18-year-old.

There’s a reason he averaged nearly 11 carries per game. By the way, despite those injuries, he averaged twice as many carries and twice as many snaps per game as Blue in 2023 (Blue’s first 30-snap game came against Washington). That’s a positive development for a Sarkisian offense, which had a running back hit 20 carries in 20 of 39 games at Texas and 11 of 26 times as the offensive coordinator at Alabama.

In Sarkisian’s offense, volume should be on Baxter’s side. Once one accepts that, one can see the path to the top of the SEC’s rushing yards leaderboard.

RELATED: Looking to place a bet on the 2024 Heisman Trophy? Saturday Down South has you covered with all the latest odds!

The passing game will prevent defenses from loading the box. It’s not just the fact that Quinn Ewers returns as the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite. It’s a reloaded group of pass-catchers with transfers Matthew Golden (Houston), Iron Bowl hero Isaiah Bond and fellow Alabama transfer Amari Niblack. Even if that group doesn’t quite have the upside of the 2023 unit with AD Mitchell and Xavier Worthy, the threat of the Sarkisian passing game still should prevent teams from selling out to stop the run.

Oh, and have I mentioned that Texas returns 4 starters from that dominant offensive line, including Kelvin Banks, Jr. who’ll be a preseason All-American? I haven’t mentioned that? Now I have.

Good. You’re starting to get it. You’re starting to see why Sarkisian having a back like Baxter who can work through contact and command bell-cow status is bad news for Texas’ future SEC goes.

In a conference that only returns 2 of its 10 leading rushers, there are plenty of paths available for 2024 SEC running backs. But the combination of talent and surroundings bode best for Baxter.

If he finishes as the SEC’s leading rusher, it won’t be worth a gasp.