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Texas freshmen DeShon Elliott, PJ Locke adding depth at safety

The best way for the Horns to elevate the play at safety is for the two true freshmen to emerge as major contributors.

DeShon Elliott at a practice before the Under Armour All-American game
DeShon Elliott at a practice before the Under Armour All-American game
Bud Elliott (SB Nation)

The freshmen cornerbacks for the Texas Longhorns aren't the only young members of the secondary who are coming on for head coach Charlie Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford -- look for true freshmen PJ Locke and DeShon Elliott to receive more snaps in the near future.

At cornerback, the transition from struggling older players to the talented freshmen didn't happen as quickly as some would have liked, but Holton Hill and Davante Davis both saw heavy usage against the Oklahoma Sooners and could be de facto starters moving forward. The third freshman cornerback, Kris Boyd, should also see his playing time increase once again as he moves out of the disciplinary period following his ill-advised halftime retweet several weeks ago.

Locke and Elliott could be on a similar trajectory if junior Dylan Haines and sophomore Jason Hall don't elevate their play in the next several weeks, as the two now represent the weakest links in a secondary that held Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield to 7.5 yards per attempt.

Haines was responsible for allowing Mayfield's only touchdown pass when he lost contact with the Sooners fullback in the end zone despite having good initial coverage, illustrating some of the problems he's had this season.

Since the Texas legacy is a steadying force on the back end who can ensure proper alignment from the rest of the defensive backs, he'll continue to have value to the secondary regardless of what happens with his competition. However, the issue facing the Texas coaches is that it's impossible to discus the former walk on without acknowledging his physical limitations in terms of open-field tackling and overall speed.

Too many times this season big plays have happened because Haines was out of position. Remember when the coaches took a lot of heat for allowing senior linebacker Peter Jinkens to get matched up against TCU speedster Kavontae Turpin several weeks ago? As bad as that match up was, though, Turpin was only able to score a touchdown because Haines was late and slow with his help over the top.

Last season, Hall made his reputation as a hard hitter in the box who could punish opponents in the run game and the passing game. As he's transitioned to playing in a deeper alignment, the big strikes have disappeared and his reaction times have slowed to a crawl -- he's not playing with much confidence or conviction right now as his progress has stagnated.

As a result, the best-case scenario at the safety position includes Locke and Elliott developing quickly to push Haines and Hall.

"They're coming along good, and those are two guys we'll rotate in at some point," Strong said Monday. "When you're sitting there, that's a position where you're gaining a lot of depth now because those guys are coming just like they did at the corner position."

Both Locke and Elliott proved in high school that they are physical tacklers and the former has much better speed than Hall, who has always been an average athlete in his movement ability. So there are definite advantages to giving one or both the chance to take Hall's job and relegate him to a role on special teams or situational packages.

In five appearances this season, Locke has five tackles and a pass defensed, so it's hard to project him as a difference-maker at this point, but Elliott, on the other hand, forced a fumble on one of his first snaps at Texas and then posted a big-hit tackle on the next kickoff.

As a safety, he's a blank canvas at this point in terms of his college potential and missed weeks of critical practice time that has set back his development. Considered a tweener and outside linebacker candidate for most of his recruitment, Elliott used a big-time senior season and impressive week of practice at the Under Armour All-American game to cement a reputation as a hard-hitting, rangy safety who could remain at the position in college. ESPN eventually ranked him as the No. 5 safety nationally after watching him in Orlando.

Locke has already made some mistakes and Elliott surely will as well once he hits the field. Going through those growing pains will be worth it for Texas, though, because Locke and Elliott are the future at the position. Hall and Haines have already provided ample evidence this year that they are not.

The freshman class of defensive backs possess the collective potential to reclaim Texas' DBU mantle and the time is soon approaching to see whether Locke and Elliott could provide an immediate upgrade at safety given significant playing time. Why merely delay the inevitable?