With fall camp now underway, BON is taking a look at the storylines surrounding each position entering the 2012 season. Today, we're looking at the defensive backs. We are DBU.
No Texas football player in recent memory is as polarizing as Blake Gideon. After starting as a true freshman, coming to Austin with a reputation for being tough (playing much of a full varsity year with a broken back) and being the heady son of a coach, Gideon quickly developed a reputation on the road against Texas Tech for failing to convert a Graham Harrell interception that fell through his lap. Over his 4 years of starting, Gideon's lack of athleticism and poor lateral quickness was heavily scrutinized. He played his best ball as a sophomore, when he was asked to play centerfield alongside Earl Thomas in Thomas' Thorpe finalist season. While Gideon never played a spectacular brand of football, he was consistent and provided enough leadership that two separate defensive coaching staffs never had enough to take him off the field.
Christian Scott led a largely inconspicuous career at Texas. The highlight of his career may have come as a freshman filling in for Blake Gideon at Kansas. After Gideon was knocked out of the game by Kansas bruiser Angus Quigley, Scott filled in and laid a massive hit on Quigley. Scott missed the entirety of the 2009 national championship run with academic issues, only playing in the title game as a special teamer. In 2010, he started alongside Blake Gideon, where the combination of two players lacking lateral quickness and coverage skills opened the Texas defense to several big plays. The 2011 season started poorly for Scott, who was suspended for the start of the season after an arrest for a run-in with a repossession worker. Scott spent the majority of the season providing solid duty in nickel and dime packages.
While the losses of Gideon and Scott represent a ton of starts at Texas, most of the impact will be felt in depth. Their replacements provide a substantial upgrade in athleticism and won't see much drop off in football IQ.
Arrivals: Duke Thomas, Adrian Colbert, Bryson Echols, Kevin Vaccaro
Duke Thomas enrolled in the spring of 2012 after playing quarterback at Copperas Cove. Much like 2011 signee Quandre Diggs, it didn't take much time for the early enrollee to transition from quarterback to impact cover corner. In a season that lacked returning starters at corner, Thomas would push immediately for starting time. As it stands, Duke will probably see time early and often as one of the first cornerbacks off the bench, and might even be the starting corner in dime packages. He has really impressed with his ability to be physical with WRs at the line of scrimmage as well as the flexibility to turn and run. Even though he gave up a touchdown pass from David Ash to Jaxon Shipley in the spring game, Thomas was in great position against the veteran WR. It was just a situation of not being able to beat a perfect throw. Duke Thomas.....well, Duane Akina strikes again.
Adrian Colbert, former Baylor commitment, was another of the late flips the coaching staff managed to pull. Art Briles is likely still unhappy about it. Based on his film, Colbert is one of my favorite takes in 2012. The film is largely a compilation of Colbert tracking ball carriers through traffic, locking on to the target, and detonating on impact. Heat seeking missile, IMO. Track star and big hitter. Oh yeah, he's also a fan of German metal band Rammstein. He'll bide his time behind a stacked safety depth chart, but I would not be surprised if he was one of the leaders in special teams tackles this year.
Bryson Echols is as polished as a cornerback coming out of high school can be. If Echols can add size to his 5-10 165 lb frame, he'll be a player. As for Kevin Vaccaro, there are probably more questions about him as a take than anyone in the class. Speaking of Vaccaros.....
Starters: Kenny Vaccaro, Adrian Phillips, Carrington Byndom, Quandre Diggs
Kenny Dwayne Vaccaro II. KDVII. The artist formerly known as Machete. This is your reminder that Vaccaro is still a Longhorn. After passing on the NFL Draft this spring, where he was a possible 1st round selection, KDVII ran into a bit of trouble in downtown Austin, an incident that largely turned out to be not much more than a learning experience. What doesn't Vaccaro bring to the Texas secondary? As a freshman, he gained a reputation as a big hitter on special teams and outside Gregory Gym. Over the next two years, he developed into a complete safety. Last year he made statements as a heavy hitter over the middle (Joseph Fauria is still doubled over in pain at UCLA) and as a lock-down slot corner (Ryan Swope is still missing as of print time; if you see Swope, please notify Texas A&M SID). Oh yeah, he's also a terror as a blitzer (Zach Maynard is still having recurring nightmares). This year, Vaccaro looks to add leadership to the list of traits he brings to the table.
Adrian Phillips has been another Swiss Army knife for the Texas defense. He performed well in spot duty as a freshman in 2010 as a safety and as a desperation punt returner, simply asked to stay deep and not muff the punt. As a sophomore last season, Phillips was slated to start at corner prior to the emergence of freshman Quandre Diggs, then moved to safety. Phillips may be the smartest of defenders in the Texas secondary, a quality not to be underestimated as he looks to replace Blake Gideon at safety. Both Vaccaro and Phillips are safeties that Manny Diaz can ask to drop down and cover slot receivers.
Carrington Byndom was a question mark at cornerback headed into 2011. However, he wasn't entirely unproven, as he provided some solid time at corner in 2010 filling in after Chykie Brown broke his arm. What Byndom quickly proved was that he could become a shut down corner needed in a Big 12 defense, including a stellar performance against 1st round draft pick Justin Blackmon. While Byndom largely struggled converting good coverage into interceptions, he had his biggest moment of the season in College Station, returning a Ryan Tannehill interception for a touchdown that largely swung momentum in Texas' favor. Byndom may not bring down a ton of interceptions in 2012, but that will likely be a function of having few passes thrown his way.
Quandre Diggs went from a prep star that had to almost beg for an offer, to a star corner as a true freshman. After announcing his presence in the 2011 spring game by blowing up Ryan Roberson on a pass to the flats, Diggs quickly worked his way into the starting lineup. While he may not stand very tall, he's not called Quandre the Giant for nothing. Diggs is not afraid to stick his nose in for run support and lay big hits, and developed as a strong cover corner after some growing pains early, including a rough outing in his first game at the Cotton Bowl. He's also a candidate to be the number 1 punt returner, where he has shown ability to break big plays, including another game-breaking play against the Aggies in College Station.
Depth: Mykkele Thompson, Sheroid Evans, Josh Turner, Leroy Scott
The Texas secondary depth features a group of very talented sophomores, the most talented likely being safety prospect Mykkele Thompson. A former star HS QB (quick aside: Akina sure loves to pluck QBs for his DB takes), Y2K is an incredibly quick talent with solid ball skills. His only problem has been acclimating to the safety position. During the spring, he struggled with being in position and generally grasping the mental aspect of the game. Case McCoy was able to look him off in the spring game enough to hit Desean Hales on a post route at the goalline. If Thompson can continue to develop, he will be special. On special teams, he could be a game breaker at kick returner. His spring game kick return touchdown was added fuel for those who want the ball in his hands more.
If I had to pick, I'd say that Josh Turner will be the first defensive back off the bench, joining Demarco Cobbs as Oklahoma exports who look to be impact players for the Texas defense. Turner is a player that Akina has been cross-training at both corner and safety. He brings good cover ability, strong ball skills, and plus instincts in the defensive backfield. He had one of the most impressive plays of the spring game, bringing down an underthrown Case McCoy pass to Mike Davis in the end zone.
Sheroid Evans is one of the fastest Longhorns in football. However, after missing the spring while running track and out with an injury, Evans may be behind the development of his fellow sophomore corners. Leroy Scott is another talented DB prospect that could play both safety and corner. He's the bigger of the sophomore defensive backs, and showed improvement in his ball skills tracking down a Case McCoy overthrow in the 2011 spring game.
Recruiting: Commitments: Antwaun Davis, 6-0 180 lbs, Bastrop, TX; Erik Huhn, 6-2 205 lbs, Cibolo, TX
The headliner of the 2013 DB class is Bastrop corner Antwaun Davis. Davis is pretty much the prototypical cornerback Duane Akina seeks out. Great frame with long arms and runs track. His junior film is loaded with shots of Davis shedding blockers with the long arms and closing on ball carriers with the track speed. Putting his talent to use.
One of the later takes in the 2013 class was Cibolo Steele safety Erik Huhn, drawing a collective, "Who?" from the fanbase and initial fears of Blake Gideon 2.0. Fortunately, Huhn is a different type of athlete. Huhn is another track guy (notice the pattern here?) that plays safety with a mean disposition. He has solid range and safety and would immediately impact run defense. Akina did his homework on this one and was impressed with Huhn at a Texas camp this summer. The rising senior has tested well and should grow into a presence in the middle for Texas.
A few prospects remain on the Texas radar for 2013. Cole Luke, cornerback prospect out of Chandler, Arizona, is the most likely to commit, if I had to guess. Luke, who has kept in constant contact with the coaching staff, is another on the list of big name prospects taking an official visit to Texas during the West Virginia game October 6th. Texas also remains in the mix for 2013 Florida safety Marcell Harris. There may only be room for one more DB take in the class, a function of a shallow DB class in 2013, few scholarships available in 2013, and a loaded in-state crop of DBs in 2014.
What to watch for in fall camp
With the starting four defensive backs decided already, and the health of Adrian Phillips and Quandre Diggs coming off of offseason surgeries in good standing, the focus shifts towards sorting out the depth behind them. Depth at defensive back in the Big 12 is less about comfort and more about necessity. When Texas faces some of the spread out passing offenses in conference, 5 and 6 defensive backs will be on the field more often than not. The question becomes who is the 5th defensive back, and where do they play. The schematic flexibility Kenny Vaccaro and Adrian Phillips provide mean that the first DB off the bench won't necessarily be a corner, or a safety, but will be the player that gives Texas the best 5 on the field.