For three years, Texas Longhorns junior safety Kevin Vaccaro has been preparing himself like a starter, waiting for his opportunity.
So when fellow junior safety Dylan Haines was ejected against the California Golden Bears after a targeting penalty on Cal's second drive, Vaccaro was ready.
Playing with the reckless abandon and striking ability that defined his older brother Kenny's career in burnt orange, Kevin flashed his playmaking potential when he forced a fumble at the goal line on his first full series to keep a touchdown off the board:
Kevin Vaccaro making his older brother proud with game-changing hit, forced fumble. #hookem pic.twitter.com/1tCMbBECYA— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) September 20, 2015
"He comes into the game, he's always been a big hitter," said head coach Charlie Strong. "He doesn't always wrap-up. Even at practice, he will hit you. He caused that fumble early, that one drive where we were able to get the ball, stop them from scoring. He played well, to be thrown into it."
Vaccaro certainly wrapped up well enough against Cal, finishing the game tied with freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson for the team lead with nine tackles (seven solo), the forced fumble, and a pass broken up. With the Texas secondary struggling to limit separation by opposing wide receivers, it was only the second pass broken up all season for the Longhorns.
The hit near the goal line wasn't the only important play that he made, as he also combined with Jefferson on an open-field stop on third down inside the red zone.
"He played absolutely good," said sophomore defensive tackle Poona Ford. "I knew that if he ever got the chance to step up, he was going to make an impact. I see him out there in practice. He's always trying to hit somebody. He's not afraid to put his pads on somebody. That's what I like about him. I wasn't surprised. I know what he's capable of, you know. He can do that more if he gets a chance. He's got the attitude with him that it takes to play defense. I like that about him."
The opportunity was a long time coming for the 5'8, 185-pounder, who was a lightly-regarded prospect out of Brownwood despite his brother's success. Rated as a consensus low three-star prospect, Vaccaro's only offer was from Louisiana Tech when he committed to Texas as a member of the 2012 class. There was speculation that he would grayshirt, but he ended up contributing on special teams in 12 games, making four tackles.
He redshirted in 2013 due to an injury and then spent 2013 playing on special teams once again, just waiting for his opportunity. With freshman safety DeShon Elliott still recovering from a toe injury, Vaccaro was the first safety off the bench after the ejection of Haines.
"What I try to tell our players all the time, every game we're going to need someone to come off the bench," Strong said. "In this game we needed two players to come off the bench with him and P.J. on defense. You have to be ready, prepare yourself like you're a starter. If he hadn't prepared himself like a starter, there is no way he would have played like he played. He played really well for us. But it was just fun to watch him go out and compete."
Despite Vaccaro's willingess to lay big hits on teammates in practice or opponents in the game, he's not a brash person off the field.
"Kevin is like one of those real quiet guys," said senior defensive tackle Desmond Jackson. "He doesn't really say too much. He laughs every once in a while. He's a humble person."
Even though Vaccaro probably won't advocate for himself, there's some thought that Vaccaro should be at the top of the depth chart at strong safety following his strong performance in his first extended action on defense:
Kevin Vaccaro should start in front of Haines going forward. Nice game— Clarence Hill (@clarencehilljr) September 20, 2015
Based on what Strong said Monday, that seems unlikely, but if Texas needs Vaccaro to step up again, he'll be ready.