Running back whisperer Tashard Choice celebrates stunning draft achievement

Texas Longhorns running backs coach Tashard Choice (right) laughs with running back Bijan Robinson after Robinson was named the winner of the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back for the 2022 season. Robinson was selected as the Falcons' first-round draft choice April 27, 2023. (Texas Football)

Credit: Texas Football

Credit: Texas Football

Texas Longhorns running backs coach Tashard Choice (right) laughs with running back Bijan Robinson after Robinson was named the winner of the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back for the 2022 season. Robinson was selected as the Falcons' first-round draft choice April 27, 2023. (Texas Football)

Tashard Choice’s day had already gone as well as he could have hoped. The former Georgia Tech star running back and assistant coach had been in Kansas City, Missouri, to see his protégé Bijan Robinson get drafted eighth overall to the Falcons.

The running backs coach at Texas, Choice had come up for the event with Longhorns coach Steve Sarkisian and experienced the spectacle for the first time.

“I had a chance to see everything,” Choice said.

But as he and Sarkisian headed back to the airport to return to Austin, Texas, the night rose to an even higher peak. Less than a half hour after Robinson was picked, the Lions picked Jahmyr Gibbs, the former Georgia Tech star whom Choice had recruited and mentored at Tech before both departed, Gibbs to Alabama and Choice to USC and ultimately Texas.

“We left, and when I’m in the car headed to the airport, when they said Gibbs’ name on the radio, I went crazy,” Choice said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I went crazy.”

With good reason. Just five years into his college coaching career, Choice had a night that most others in his profession will never have the fortune to experience. College coaches can toil a career and not have a single player drafted in the first round, let alone two in the first 12 picks.

“I’m going to tell you, I’ve been thinking about it all day,” Choice said Friday, the day after the first round. “I got home and I told my wife, ‘Man, this is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever done, because it wasn’t about me.’”

Those who know Choice recognize that it wasn’t a celebration of self. He described the day as pure jubilation, saying he was like a little kid, as though he himself had been drafted. Robinson and Gibbs are both young men that he appreciates as football players, respects as people and whose hard work and lack of entitlement he has seen up close.

“Because now I’m so happy to see those guys reach their dreams and you know that you had a little part in it to help them,” Choice said. “Because now they’re living out what they want to do in their life, and I don’t think there’s anything better than that. It’s unbelievable.”

On top of that, Robinson and Gibbs were selected in the first half of the first round at a time when their position has become devalued. In the previous 10 drafts before this year, a total of 12 running backs were taken in the first round. In the previous 12 drafts, only once were two running backs taken in the first 12 picks as they were this year. Running backs have become increasingly seen as replaceable commodities not worth the price of a high first-round pick.

While Robinson’s singularity had moved him up into the top 10 of mock drafts prior to the draft, Gibbs was considered a late first-round choice or even a second-rounder. (Choice expected him to go between the 15th and 20th picks.)

Choice’s perspective is that considering Robinson and Gibbs merely as running backs is limiting. Choice asserted that the two were better playmakers and more dynamic than any offensive player in the draft except for the quarterbacks taken in the first two picks, Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud.

“Those guys can play special teams, they can play first, second and third down, so they add tremendous value,” Choice said. “That’s what the NFL has moved to. For you to be able to keep that guy on the field and still have a mismatch on third down, that’s why they projected so high. Gibbs has home-run speed and Bijan can break any tackle. He’s the hardest dude I’ve ever seen to tackle.”

For Falcons fans in a mood to drool, Gibbs’ scope of comparisons has some heft. He was a college teammate of eventual seven-time All-Pro Adrian Peterson before transferring to Tech and worked with two-time NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott in Elliott’s rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys when Choice was a coaching intern.

Choice, who grew up a Falcons fan in Jonesboro, is hopeful Robinson has an impact beyond the field.

“They’re getting the best dude in the world,” Choice said. “He’s going to ball, but he is going to be great for the community. He’s going to be a great role model. He actually cares. It’s not a façade.”

The draft was not over for Choice after Gibbs was taken. In the fourth round, former Longhorns running back Roschon Johnson went to the Bears.

Consider this – Choice has been the position coach for Robinson, Gibbs and Johnson. At Tech, he also coached Jordan Mason, who made the 49ers as an undrafted free agent last year and ran for 258 yards as a rookie. In his first year at North Texas, in a quality-control role, he helped running back Jeff Wilson, now a six-year NFL veteran with the Dolphins.

It would not be a surprise if two more running backs he coached at Tech – Dontae Smith and Jam Griffin (now at Oregon State, where he ran for 488 yards last season) – get a crack at the NFL.

“They got a chance,” Choice said. “Those jokers can play.”

Among the running backs at Texas is freshman C.J. Baxter, the No. 1 running back prospect in the 2023 class (247Sports Composite). His fingerprints could be all over running back depth charts across the NFL. It’s little surprise that Choice was hired away from Tech after the 2021 season, his third at Tech, first by USC, only to have Texas ultimately win his services.

“I can’t say enough about Tashard Choice, he is just a tremendous person and outstanding coach,” Sarkisian said in a statement for the AJC. “Tashard’s knowledge, work ethic and attention to detail is extraordinary, while his passion for the game and tireless effort brings out the best in everyone he coaches. His players absolutely love him, and he pours himself into them. Tashard leaves no stones unturned in helping a player grow and develop on the field, in the film room and as a person off the field.”

Choice coaches players on the idea of “could be.”

“The ‘could be’ is locked up in the commitment,” he said. “If you’re committed to the work, committed to the things you’re going to do, you have a chance at what you could be. And that’s how I coach those guys.”

When Robinson won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back, he thanked Choice “for just always getting me prepared every single week to understand the defenders and how they tackle and the angles that they’re coming from. So it’s just a blessing to have him.”

At the NFL combine in March, Gibbs said that Choice “made me who I am today.” After leaving Tech, Choice and Gibbs stayed in touch, as Choice did with others he coached at Tech, stars and walk-ons alike.

Choice’s draft record will serve to only increase the trust that players have in him, not to mention the interest in running backs to want to play for him. And it compels Choice to drive himself even harder.

“I want to be even better for them,” he said, his passion for the job evident in his voice. “The things I think I can work on, I want to work on ‘em even more so my players can be even better, so I can prepare them even more.”

And, it’s worth considering, he’s only five seasons into his career as a college coach.

“I’m still like a little child,” Choice said. “To be honest, what I’ve learned is even, like, somebody that’s a (graduate assistant), that’s an analyst, you can always learn something from others. The day I feel like I’ve got it is the day I’m going to lose.”

It would seem there’s little he can do to prove himself further as a running backs coach and as someone deserving of a chance to climb the ladder, either as an offensive coordinator or a head coach. Choice reportedly turned down an offer to become the running backs coach for the Los Angeles Rams.

“Tashard’s an awesome staff member, is really creative and has a great grasp of offenses and the game of football,” Sarkisian said. “With his immense experience as a player himself and now as a coach, he has a really, really bright future in our business. He is definitely on the path to be a great coordinator and head coach and we are so lucky to have him.”

Becoming a head coach is Choice’s dream and goal. He’s trying to apply the lesson he learned as a player – be great in your role. He watches Sarkisian closely and asks questions, preparing for a bigger opportunity.

“So that’s how my mind frame is,” Choice said. “I know that’s my end goal, but every single day, I’m trying to be the best coach I can for him and keep rolling.”