Tasked with blowing up the wide receiver screen game, dealing with quick slot receivers, occasionally blitzing the quarterback, and holding the edge in the run game, the nickel back is one of the most important pieces as modern defenses attempt to deal with spread offenses. No other position needs such a diverse skillset -- strong, physical, smart, and quick -- and no other position requires more on a play-to-play basis.
So it makes sense that the Longhorns will deploy junior cornerback Quandre Diggs in that role in 2013. In fact, while the rumor du jour around the Alamo Bowl revolved around the move of Diggs to safety, perhaps it should have been apparent all along that he would fill such a crucial role.
With senior Adrian Phillips looking fully recovered from the shoulder injury that limited him so much as a tackler in 2012 and junior Mykkele Thompson also appearing more physical during a tough stop of junior running back Joe Bergeron barreling around the corner in the spring game, the biggest need was replacing Vaccaro, especially with junior Sheroid Evans and sophomore Duke Thomas emerging to hold down the boundary corner position that Diggs ended up moving out of during the spring.
After the spring game, Diggs hardly sounded overwhelmed by his new responsibilities:
Playing nickel is something new, but it's a fun opportunity for me. It's a good opportunity for me to go out and just make plays. I can be in the box more and be around the ball more. Any opportunity I get to do those things, I'm always up for it. It's been a great spring learning nickel, but I've still got a long way to go. I look forward to watching more film on what Kenny Vaccaro did last year and other guys that played nickel in the past.
Certainly, Vaccaro's play can provide a number of pointers for Diggs, who has never struggled himself with physicality, despite playing so much on offense in high school, recording 38 solo tackles last season and 32 the year before, significant numbers for a cornerback.
It's almost like he was groomed for years by a successful older brother to play the position in college and beyond. Oh wait...
Diggs went on to expand about what he needs to do to learn the position inside and out:
You've got to know your run responsibilities more. That's something that you've got to learn at nickel. At corner, you have most everything contained. On the inside, you've got to know what gap you have and things like that. I'm still learning those phases. I'm just going to continue to get better and watch film.
About two inches shorter than Vaccaro and 15 pounds lighter, Diggs isn't quite the physical presence of his predecessor, but he does pack some punch in his squatty, 200-pound frame and his pedigree is such that the mental part of the game shouldn't be an issue.
But, of course, defensive back coach Duane Akina likes to have options, which is why Diggs was working some at safety during bowl practice, sparking all those rumors. The next man up in the nickel role is Phillips, who spent some time there during the spring game, as well.
The only problem with moving Diggs to nickel? The position change will showcase the Angleton product's versatile skillset, which could make him even more appealing for the NFL. He's already ranked just outside the top five cornerbacks who would be eligible for the 2014 draft, so there's a chance to could forgo his final season of eligibility in Austin and declare early.
Whether Texas gets one more year of Diggs or two, there seems to be little question that he will competently fill the shoes of Vaccaro by stepping into his role. He is called Quandre the Giant for a reason.