In the lead up to the 2009 season, Will Muschamp looked for his defense, and his secondary in particular, to become a playmaking unit. Year 1 of Boom focused almost exclusively on getting a defense that had often found itself out of position and susceptible to big plays aligned correctly and in the proper position. Year 2 focused on the next step -- creating turnovers, particularly the maturing members of the secondary who often got close to making game-changing plays, but too often came up just short. Didn't finish.
The events at the end of the game in Lubbock encapsulated what ultimately came to be a season-defining deficiency and one of the major differences between playing in the national championship game and watching Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. The wounds are still fresh for many Longhorn fans and will undoubtedly remain so well into the future -- the type of wounds for which only a national championship can provide an effective salve.
As he was often during his true freshman season, safety Blake Gideon was well prepared and instinctive enough to find himself in the right place at the right time as a tipped pass from Graham Harrell floated in the air. He just couldn't finish. Then, Curtis Brown got caught in between making a play on the ball and staying between Michael Crabtree on the subsequent immortal denouement and Earl Thomas inexplicably took a bad angle/gave up on the play, claiming later that he heard a whistle blow.
Two moments representative of a greater whole -- the team that finished tied for seventh in the country in lost turnovers at only 14, but struggled mightily to create them on defense, ranking 105th nationally with only 16 forced turnovers, including a paltry six interceptions.
The young secondary that made such high-profile mistakes in 2008 grew up in 2009, most particularly Earl Thomas, who made an incredible leap in his third year in the program, topping 2008's interception total himself with eight, a number that set a team record. In the words of Will Muschamp, the young player who often had to be told where to line up as a redshirt freshman began looking through the doorway instead of a keyhole, understanding how his role fit into the greater defensive scheme.
The nation's 19th-ranked pass defense benefited from more than just the brilliant play of the now-departed Thomas -- Gideon also went from a player who was in position but couldn't finish plays, to a player who finished plays after getting into position, corralling six interceptions on the year.
Curtis Brown finally became a physical presence on the field and made one of the plays of the season, jumping a route against Oklahoma State for a game-changing touchdown. Like Gideon and his progression from his freshman to sophomore years, Brown is the most likely candidate among the cornerbacks to turn his strong positioning into more interceptions -- that play against Oklahoma State still ranks as the only pick for the talented senior who is drawing attention from NFL scouts because of his speed and fluidity. At the least, Brown should match or exceed his total of six passes defensed from 2009d or simply force quarterbacks to look in another direction.
One place opposing quarterbacks probably won't look is in the direction of junior Aaron Williams, a player who will almost certainly leave after this season for the riches of the League. In the nickel back position, the McNeil product used his strength to blow up screens and his athleticism to excel in coverage, giving up only a handful of completions on the season and most of those during the A&M game when he was far less than 100%.The amount of respect he should receive will probably make it difficult for him to approach Thomas' production in terms of securing interceptions, but there's little question that his talent will flash even if he receives only limited opportunities. Hell, Landry Jones was trying to throw the ball out of bounds when Williams levitated for his spectacular pick against Oklahoma.
On the other side, Chykie Brown was maddeningly inconsistent, but showed flashes of his immense potential. At this point, it's hard to predict that Brown will make major strides as a senior -- he may be who he is at this point, but there is still the possibility that he could turn in a strong senior season by eliminating his mental mistakes and finally maximizing his prodigious skill set, which is every bit as impressive as his fellow cornerbacks. Of the three starters, Chykie may be the least likely to have a long NFL career and if he doesn't, the cause will be completely between his ears. And if he doesn't have a breakout senior season, it won't be from a lack of expectations for himself -- the lanky senior predicted seven or eight interceptions for himself this season during a recent media availability.
One player will not replace Thomas' production individually, but improvements across the board and strong play from the pair of physical safeties who will see more playing time this season could help the secondary deliver some bone-crunching hits and separate a few receivers from the football.
The biggest difference could come from safeties Christian Scott, a junior who was academically ineligible last season until the bowl game, and Kenny Vaccaro, the sophomore who delivered the devastating hit on Tre' Newton in the flat in the spring game. Both players will battle all season for the coveted Hard Hat Award given to the nastiest hit of the game and both will force opposing receivers to think twice before coming across the middle. In addition, both should be stronger than the smaller Thomas in run support. However, both were also susceptible to play-action passes and must stay disciplined to avoid giving up big plays.
As Mack Brown mentioned during his State of the Union press conference to kick off fall practice, as good as Thomas was last season, and he was really good, "there's another Earl Thomas stepping up." The program must replace those players, Brown estimates, and that's why it's so important to consistently recruit quality players at every position, something Texas has done consistently well over the years. That's why there are experienced players like the Browns and Aaron Williams, and hungry young players like Scott and Vaccaro to step into the void.
This is Texas after all.
Reload, not rebuild.