When Kenny Vaccaro came to Texas as part of the 2009 recruiting class from Brownwood Early, he was ranked as a low four-star prospect and the no. 18 player at his position nationally, while failing to crack the Rivals national list. The service had 37 players ranked ahead of him in state of Texas.
Not all of those players are draft eligible yet, but it would be a major upset for any of them to go higher than Vaccaro either this year or next.
He leaves Texas as the top safety in the class and a player who could sneak into the top half of the first round. At a school that has had trouble turning recruiting success into high picks in the NFL Draft in recent years, the 6-0, 215-pound safety is a major success story.
No single play in a career that included some significant highlights stands out more for Vaccaro than his vault of Cal running back Isi Sofele in the 2011 Holiday Bowl. As the diminutive Golden Bear back went to cut Vaccaro on a blitz, the Brownwood product simply leaped over his opponent, showing off the running vertical that was the third best among the more than 30 athletes tested by ESPN Sport Science in advance of the draft.
That's levitation, holmes
What made the play more impressive than Vaccaro's pure vertical leap, however, was his ability to land on balance and re-direct to sack a reasonably mobile quarterback in Zach Maynard.
Had Vaccaro merely hurdled Sofele and failed to make the play, it would have been nothing more than an impressive feat of athleticism, a curiosity. His ability to finish made it an astounding football play.
Kenny Vaccaro 2012 Senior Highlights (via godzillatron24)
As evidenced by the above look and the Sport Science testing shown below, Vaccaro is a superlative athlete, even though his 40 time of 4.63 at the Combine was rather disappointing. In all the other measurements, as well as on film, Vaccaro performed well -- he had a 38-inch vertical and a 4.06 short shuttle time, which was the third best among safeties, also turning in the sixth-best three-cone time.
In the open field, he has the ability to redirect to make plays against agile defenders in pass or run defense and has the hips to mirror opposing receivers.
Sport Science: Kenny Vaccaro (via ESPN)
There have been some physical defensive backs come through the school known as DBU over the last few years, including players like Aaron Ross who developed into strong tacklers while at Texas, as well as players like Aaron Williams, who made the short journey down to Austin and was already a strong wrap-up tackler when he arrived.
Of all those prospects, perhaps none entered the program with the bone-jarring hitting ability of Vaccaro. How hard does he hit? In Missouri in 2011, Vaccaro's open-field reputation preceded him enough that a Missouri running back simply chose to crumple in the open field instead of taking a big hit from Vaccaro, instead getting an unintentional helmet-to-helmet hit for his troubles.
Quarterback James Franklin was more lucky, somehow surviving a Vaccaro kill shot. Coming on a blitz from the blind side, Vaccaro was able to put a clean hit to the ribs of Franklin, who was lucky they weren't broken in the process.
In terms of ability to sink his hips and roll out through them explosively as a tackle, the Texas safety is an elite prospect.
After losing Aaron Williams following the 2010 season, Texas used Vaccaro primarily as a nickel back against opposing slot receivers, a task that included going against two of the fastest receivers in his class, including Ryan Swope in 2011 and Tavon Austin in 2012.
In 2011, Vaccaro made a highlight-reel interception that helped the Longhorns climb back and win that game late, holding Swope to three catches for 34 yards and zero touchdowns. The A&M prospect ran a 4.34 40 at the Combine this year and rang up more than 1,200 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011.
The starring turn for Vaccaro in 2012 was against West Virginia's dynamic slot receiver, who also ran a sub-4.4 time at the Combine. Asked to mirror Austin with some help over the top, Vaccaro had to deal with an elite opponent who could in either direction against him.
In other words, Vaccaro absolutely locked down two of the fastest players in the country over consecutive years.
This is a category that extends beyond striking ability and verges into other areas. How willing is Vaccaro to deal with jamming bigger receivers at the line of scrimmage if asked to walk down in man coverage? Can he take on blockers in the wide receiver screen game?
He spent some time playing a pseudo linebacker position when the Longhorns were having trouble stopping the run and even in the nickel he had significant run responsibilities.
In run defense and in defeating blockers, Vaccaro has both the strength and tenacity to win those battles. More often than not in college he had an advantage in athleticism over his opponents, but he had an even more significant advantage in pure desire and recklessness.
First, the good news -- this isn't the Kenny Vaccaro who punched a law student over a dispute or consistently picked up personal foul penalties on special teams as a freshman because he was just a little bit too out of control.
The bad news? Vaccaro was known as a guy who liked to party while at Texas and there are plenty of stories about less than ideal behavior downtown, even apart from the incident at the late-night pizza parlor when he and three other Texas players failed to leave when asked to do so by a police officer.
He was also pretty candid after returning to school for his senior season about how well things would have gone had he had access to a massive NFL contract at that time. He's presumably more mature now with a young son and another year of perspective, but if he ends up in a town like Miami, he'll have to exercise some self control.
The maturity issues didn't surface on the field over his last several years as much, but he did seem to have a tendency to freelance at times as a senior in an attempt to make plays for a defense that had some serious difficulties doing so.
Though the Longhorns employ some patter-matching looks as most defenses do these days, Texas is not a zone-heavy team, so while Vaccaro got better in that regard as a senior, he may need some time at the next level to refine his skills in zone coverages as a deep safety.
Deep angles in run support
The major knock on Vaccaro as a player is that he didn't always take correct angles coming from his deep safety position, losing leverage at times.
Part of the likely reason? He simply didn't play deep safety that much during his last two seasons. Still, he'll be asked to do so more often in the NFL and will have to clean up that area of his game.
In underneath run support, he appears more comfortable. Against West Virginia, he was assigned to track Austin around the field and this particular play shows his ability to avoid a second-level defender while crossing the formation, then take a strong enough angle to bring down the Mountaineer speedster.
Kenny Vaccaro catches Tavon Austin (via DailyMailSportsBlog)
With his athleticism in testing, striking ability, and high-level man-coverage skills put on film by Vaccaro against two of the top athletes in the draft, he has a handful of tools that could make him a physical free safety in the NFL with the ability to play near the box against the run and handle slot receivers, a rare quality.
Since all the ability is there, the only thing that can hold Vaccaro back is himself, both in terms of his decision-making off the field and his ability to operate within a defense's scheme. In both of those areas he has made improvements during his time at Texas and is at least self aware enough to know that coming out after his junior season wouldn't have been the best idea. And self awareness is perhaps the key ingredient to personal growth.
So while there is some bust potential with Vaccaro, his apparent love for the game that causes him to give everything he has while he's on the field greater reduces that bust potential.
And that ceiling? Well, there aren't many players in the draft who can match it.