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When Kenny Vaccaro Talks, You Listen

Whether out of fear or respect or both, teammates listen to Kenny Vaccaro when he talks (Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE).
Whether out of fear or respect or both, teammates listen to Kenny Vaccaro when he talks (Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE).

Leadership can operate on several different levels -- it can be borne of fear, or borne of respect. Perhaps even a healthy combination of the two. Perhaps just enough of the former and a heaping of the latter.

When Texas Longhorns senior safety Kenny Vaccaro shares his frustrations with the effort level of his teammates, they probably listen, whether out of fear or respect or both. Actually, one Longhorn said Monday that that was exactly the case one day during the offseason.

Junior defensive back Adrian Phillips revealed that Vaccaro stopped a summer workout to lay into his teammates, according to Orangebloods ($). Later, Vaccaro explained exactly what he was thinking and what he said:

I just feel like I know the standard, and I know what it takes to win. I feel like, in order for us to get where we need to get, I feel like I need to take everybody with me and I need to bring that intensity, and everybody needs to be the same. I think we all need to be on the same page.

If you're not going to go out there and go 100 percent, I said, 'Just go home. Because if football is not important to you, like it is to me, I don't want to be associated with a group of guys who don't care as much as I do.'

Boom. It's the type of leadership that has been lacking for Texas in recent years. As fantastic as the Acho brothers are as people, it's not really in their makeup to lay into their teammates for lackadaisical effort. In fact, Vaccaro said it's something that has been missing since the 2009 team:

We haven't had anybody call anybody out since Sergio (Kindle) and Lamarr (Houston) did it (in 2009). I was scared my freshman year of Sergio - we called him The Predator - and all these dudes like him around me. I was scared that if I didn't make every tackle on kickoff, they were going to rip my head off.

Taylor Potts may or may not remember an experience that nearly resulted in a decapitation at the hands of Kindle, so it's easy to forgive Vaccaro for feeling that way. Would any of y'all mess with a dude called The Predator? Not without a death wish, I suspect.

Last week, the Brownwood product talked about the younger players contributing in a similar role:

I just told the guys that back in 2009, my only role was special teams because I had all NFL defensive backs in front of me. So I didn't even think about getting the chance to play there. I just told them just to play your role and that can contribute tons to your team. Coach Duane Akina, before starting camp this year, he put a specials team highlight film of the top 10 plays of me my freshman year. I believe it was three blocked punts, couple of forced fumbles on kick-off, and things like that just to help the team make big championship runs.

No word though on whether those players are worried about having their collective heads ripped off if they don't make tackles on special teams, but it would probably be advisable for them not to find out the hard way.

For many players, respect is earned through leading by example -- by showing up to practice mentally and physically prepared every day. To drop an overused cliche favored by coaches, by bringing your lunchpail to work every day. Okay, that seems regrettable already. Apologies for the terrible cliche.

Point is, Vaccaro has earned the respect of his teammates by being a consistent performer in practice. In fact, defensive backs coach Duane Akina called him the most consistent defensive back he has on the roster when asked last week:

I would say Kenny Vaccaro. My feelings on coaching is where I try to stretch it is that I want the best player in the room to grow the most because what he does is that he brings the rest of the room along with him. With Kenny, you could argue he is as good of a defensive back in the nation and not just in our room. He still realizes that if he is going to come back, there is still a lot more that we can get out of him. He has done a great job of now understanding formations, backfield splits, and depths of a back. All these little things, like I said that will make him an intellectual player. We see that he is a physical guy, he can run and cover but now he has seen the game.

Leading by example may be the most important aspect of leadership, according to defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who cautioned against what he called the "Hollywood version of leadership":

If you have a guy who gets into somebody's face and tries to be that person but he doesn't have the respect of the football team, then you have a problem, it actually makes it worse. It's detrimental. You go to any game, from Pee Wee to the pros, and sidelines are filled with guys who want to give speeches. We don't need any more guys who say ‘Let's go!' We need guys who, first and foremost, lead with their work ethic, their toughness and with their dependability. Age is a factor, too, but once they've checked off those boxes, then they've earned the right to bring the guys along.

Consider the boxes checked off for Vaccaro. Checked off with the tip of a machete.

Vaccaro has been working hard to make sure that his teammates on the defensive side of the ball don't get complacent with all the talk about the elite potential of the unit this season, which he sees as a potential problem:

I think not getting into all the hype. There are a lot of good things being said about our defense, and I think we just need to shut it all off and prove it first before we get our heads too high.

For his part, Diaz believes that the other players listen to Vaccaro when he makes such statements:

Leadership is obviously important, but people put the cart before the horse. If you beg for leadership in the wrong place, it can pull a team in the other direction. Our team respects Kenny Vaccaro. If I'm a younger player, like Mykkele Thompson or Josh Turner, I wouldn't want to make Kenny Vaccaro mad.

It's probably a good philosophy for anyone.

But despite the tattoos, the intensity, the reputation for hard hits and something of a short temper, the artist formerly known as Machete still values the connection between leadership and respect:

You don't want guys scared of you. Just respect. We want to win games. I'm a senior. Just play for the guy beside you and respect that.

Well, they may be scared anyway, but there's no question that Vaccaro's increased maturity and consistent play in practice has been enough to secure the respect of his teammates so they'll listen to him whenever something needs to be said. Seems as if the Longhorns have been missing that in recent years.