Two years ago, Texas Longhorns junior safety Dylan Haines was a long way from assuming the leadership role he now holds as one of the secondary's only game-tested players.
At that time, the Lago Vista product and Texas legacy was a walk on, limited to working with the scout team and never given a chance to play with the first team or the second in practice.
"My second year I wasn't given the opportunities in practice or in spring ball and camp to really show what I was capable of," he said lat fall. "I was kind of just limited to running the scout team against the first team offense. I guess, yeah, just a lack of opportunity was the real problem."
In the meritocracy of new head coach Charlie Strong, Haines got an opportunity and took full advantage of it.
Now, Haines is not only on scholarship, he's coming off a season in which he finished third on the team in tackles (86), first in interceptions (4), and second in pass break ups (7). In fact, he's the leading returning tackler for the Horns after the departures of linebackers Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond and his interception return for a touchdown against the Cyclones was a key moment in that last-second victory.
Hicks and Edmond weren't the only important losses for the defense, though, as Quandre Diggs and Mykkele Thompson, also graduated, leaving Haines as one of two upperclassmen with significant experience. It's a position that he takes seriously.
"Being a redshirt junior this next season and with guys graduating, I kind of stepped up into a leadership position and trying to lead guys," he said on Monday.
He's getting some help from cornerback Duke Thomas, currently the lone senior among the healthy scholarship defensive backs.
"Yeah, if not more vocal," Haines said when asked to compare Thomas to the notoriously outspoken Diggs. "Quandre is great player and definitely a leader out there. Duke really understands the game. He wants to go in there and be as mentally tough as physically tough and he takes a lot of pride in that."
Other than assuming the new leadership role along with Thomas, Haines also has a different look this season, trading in the No. 44 that he wore last year for a lower number that also throws back to his prep days.
"14 is what I wore in high school," Haines said. "I was getting on the coaches all off-season because I thought 44 was a little too high for a safety. I'm glad to get that number back. I feel maybe a step or two faster and quicker."
Regardless of whether the number changes improves the speed of Haines, the Orange-White game on Saturday will mark a significant moment for the 6'1, 188-pounder -- it was in the spring game last year that he foreshadowed his emergence as a contributor by intercepting the first pass from quarterback Tyrone Swoopes and returning it 23 yards to set up the Horns team with good field position on the Texas 20-yard line.
Unfortunately, that particular play didn't foreshadow a turnover-producing defense in 2014, even though Haines contributed those four interceptions, as Texas finished tied for 50th nationally in turnovers gained with only 22 on the season.
As a result, that's been a point of emphasis for the Longhorns this spring. Even though the defense is depleted by injuries and departures, it will still have the chance to showcase some playmaking ability on Saturday.
"One thing we've been stressing is turnovers," Haines said. "That was the only thing I don't think we did a good job of last year. We're just trying to come out Saturday and force four turnovers and just play good defense."