"He's one of those 5-9 guys that plays 9-5." -- Texas co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite.
There's a reason that Texas freshman cornerback Quandre Diggs is affectionately known as Quandre the Giant to his teammates and fans, a revelation courtesy of a candid moment from Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro in the lead up to fall practice.
"He's short, but not small," continued the hard-hitting fellow defensive back.
There's no doubt that Diggs came up big in the largest of moments against Texas A&M last week. The former Angleton quarterback and younger brother of long-time Charger and lifelong Longhorn Quentin Jammer, Diggs has spent his life preparing to make big plays on the football field, preferably for the Longorns.
Early in the decisive third quarter, after Carrington Byndom's game-changing interception and a subsequent stop by the Texas defense, Diggs took a punt 81 yards deep into A&M territory, with only a hustle play by Malcolme Kennedy, Traylon Shead's quarterback in high school, keeping Diggs from the end zone.
Diggs gave the credit to his blocking for the run and the tackle to Kennedy's hustle, instead of making excuses about how many snaps he had played. Which isn't necessarily easy, considering the ribbing he surely took from his teammates about failing to house the play.
Even earlier, Diggs had intercepted Aggie quarterback Ryan Tannehill directly after Blaine Irby's touchdown catch off the arm of Jaxon Shipley, another major turning point in momentum for a Longhorn team struggling to stay afloat in an extremely hostile environment.
With three interceptions on the season, two forced fumbles, 13 passes defended, and 41 tackles, the stats from the freshman reinforce the playmaking snapshots from last week. One of those tackles was another iconic snapshot, coming in emphatic fashion on the first play of the Kansas State game when he picked up a wide receiver and body slammed him to the turf, a play that set the tone for the entire defensive performance from the Longhorns.
The type of play it took some Longhorn defensive backs years to physically master and embrace. Longhorn defensive backs, in fact, who are now playing in the NFL.
Though he's struggled at times, particularly earlier in the season, Diggs has emerged with more consistent play at cornerback and is starting to become a weapon on special, as evidenced by the long punt return.
Even when healthy, fellow freshman Jaxon Shipley wasn't providing much on punt returns, gaining only 42 yards on eight attempts. Since he took over the job following Shipley's knee injury, an equal number of efforts by Diggs have resulted in more than four times as many yards. Granted, a large percentage of the total for Diggs came on the one run, but even taking that effort out, he still averages almost three times what Shipley did, total.
All this isn't to criticize Jaxon Shipley, who is a fantastic receiver and solid return man, but coaches talk about returners on punts and kickoffs making the first player miss and the explosive, strongly-built Diggs is more likely to make the sharp cut and make a defender miss than Shipley. Basically, it looks like the Longhorns could have a punt returner for years to come.
In the other special teams return phase, the coaches are increasingly turning to Diggs in the absence of Fozzy Whittaker, as well, evidenced by four returns against the Aggies, though the little Giant was only able to muster 20 yards a pop.
"He's a guy that's just a straight baller." -- Major Applewhite, again.
Looking at it on the surface, it's hard to comprehend how well Diggs has played for such a young player. On the surface.
According to Major Applewhite, Diggs has a unique combination of athletic talent and maturity that comes from his upbringing.
Coachability and talent equals success:
Listening to the coaches and his athletic ability combines into a great player. And then when a guy's like that, when he listens to you, when he does what multiple coaches tell him to do, he's just a guy that you trust. Because he's got so much pride in his job. So you say, "That guy. I trust him to go out there on the field and field that ball."
Longhorn fans only have to reflect on the struggles fielding the football on punts in 2010 to know just how much trust a coach has to have in a player to put them out on punt returns. Dustin Harris for A&M provided a perfect example of the potential for things to go wrong when he booted a short hop for inexplicable reasons, leading to another of the game-changing plays.
But Diggs has already taken those crucial reps. In his mind. In practice. Running around with the football as a little kid.
"He talks it. He eats it. He sleeps it." -- More Applewhite.
Strong words from a coach who has known Diggs for most of the young man's life as Jammer's roommate at Texas. Major Applewhite saw the early seeds planted for Diggs to become a great player:
Quandre has always, from the moment I first met him - I guess he was six-seven years old - so from the time I met him in first or second grade he's always had a football in his hand. Always had the latest stats. The latest Sportscenter highlights. He's always been a gym rat. And he's continued to be that way as he's grown up. He's got an infectious attitude. A lot of energy and enthusiasm. He's a guy that's a straight baller. He just loves football and loves to play sports. It doesn't matter what it is. At seven years old he was trying to play me on [at video games]. He's always been about sports. Trying to get [older brother and former Longhorn] Quentin [Jammer] and I out of the apartment. Throw the ball around with him. He's always been obsessed with it. And I think those are the types of guys that are ultimately the best at the sport.
Quandre Diggs has prepared for nearly his entire life to play defensive back at Texas like his big brother.
The fact that Texas nearly didn't give him the opportunity to do so nearly boggles the mind. Despite the relationships, despite the pedigree, despite the big-time offers from other major programs, Diggs was the only kid invited to the second Junior Day who didn't receive an offer. The only one.
Diggs has to be a prideful kid because he takes pride in his preparation and dedication to being great. It says an incredibly amount about his loyalty to the program that he never wavered in his desire to be a Longhorn despite what he could have taken as absolute disrespect from a coaching staff that had seen first-hand all those budding attributes of the future star that Diggs has become in less than a year on campus.
But whatever, back to the positives and the all-overwhelming positive that Diggs is causing his damage to opponents while wearing a Longhorn on his helmet.
Duane Akina traced his development throughout the season:
He just started off as a back up corner. He showed he could do that. He trots out as punt returner and shows he can do that. We put him as kick returner and we get the same result. You just keep adding more and more and he seems to be handling it all. All of this on top of him being a very productive defensive player in a very explosive offensive conference.
As for Diggs reprising his high school role at quarterback, both Applewhite and Akina acknowledged that there have been discussions about putting Diggs on the offensive side of the ball, too. Specifically as the Wildcat quarterback.
It might be difficult to put much more on a true freshman, but, hey, Diggs has handled everything else with aplomb, hasn't he?
You can bet that Diggs has prepared for that, too.