For a second straight game, the Texas Longhorns relied primarily on sophomore cornerbacks John Bonney and Kris Boyd against the Kansas State Wildcats, relegating fellow sophomores Davante Davis and Holton Hill to roles on special teams.
Davis started five games last season in earning honorable mention All-Big 12 honors. Hill started eight games in also earning honorable mention All-Big 12 honors.
Expectations were high for both entering the season — Davis was an All-Big 12 pick in the preseason and Hill likely wasn’t far behind. Together, the two looked to become the top pair of cornerbacks in a conference devoid of high-quality duos.
Asked about the two on Monday, Texas head coach Charlie Strong mostly deflected.
Have Davis and Hill regressed since last season?
“I don’t know so much that it’s regressed, it’s just that they’re playing a lot on special teams and just haven’t had the snaps yet with Boyd and even on the back side with Bonney, both of those two guys are playing well, but we’re alternating a lot of guys still,” Strong said.
The statement about playing well is only true for one of them, as Boyd has been the only cornerback who is close to reliable, despite the consistency of his mental mistakes — his errors tend to be of commission rather than omission.
But Bonney? The third-year player struggled last season at cornerback and spent the spring at safety before once again emerging as a cornerback with the struggles of Davis and Hill.
Against Iowa State, he finished second on the team with six tackles, mostly a result of consistently giving up passes in front of him. He didn’t get beat over the top, as he did earlier in the season against Cal, but he just wasn’t close enough to break up passes.
In fact, even though he’s started in eight games and played in 19 contests overall, he only has two passes broken up for his career, with zero interceptions.
In his second 2016 start, Bonney received the lowest grade of all Texas defenders from Pro Football Focus in allowing seven of the 20 Kansas State completions on nine targets, ultimately giving up 53 of the 171 passing yards accumulated by opposing quarterback Jesse Ertz. He also had a pass interference penalty that helped set up the touchdown he allowed right before halftime.
So Strong’s claim that Bonney has out-competed both Davis and Hill speaks to the how poorly those players have performed in games, in practice, along with whatever other issues are going on behind the scenes.
Are there issues between the coaches and those two players?
No, Strong said, all the relationships are fine, specifically citing Davis and Hill.
“It's not because Davante and Holton, they're not doing a good job because they don't have a relationship with their coach. They just got to play better. You practice better, play better, those things are going to happen for you,” Strong said.
“The assistant coaches, they all have that relationship. It's one of the things that we truly preach. It's one of the things I'll always preach.”
But it’s quite possible, if not likely, that one or both players have clashed with new defensive backs coach Clay Jennings, especially given the lack of improvement from both players.
Hill in particular seems like a player with a potential attitude problem — he unexpectedly failed to start against Notre Dame in the opener, then did not appear in the game against UTEP.
When the nation’s No. 80 player and No. 7 cornerback in the 2015 247Sports Composite rankings finally earned his way out of the doghouse enough to start against Oklahoma, he played poorly in giving up one of three long touchdown passes to star Sooners wide receiver Dede Westbrook.
Davis, for his part, appeared to loaf at the end of the Iowa State game and got benched. The Florida product also gave up a long touchdown pass to Westbrook in the Cotton Bowl.
If there was one element to Strong’s responses about the two players on Monday that rang true, it came when he noted that both Davis and Hill struggled in giving up big plays, also noting that neither one has practiced particularly well.
“It’s all about your work at practice — that’s where I tell them that it always starts,” Strong said. “You look at some of those games early and you saw them out there and you saw them give up some big plays.”
In parsing Strong’s answer, what it seems like he’s saying here is that those players are giving up big plays because they aren’t preparing well in practice. That particular answer echoes former defensive coordinator Vance Bedford’s response when asked about Hill before the Oklahoma State game.
“Our thing right now is if you don’t come to practice every day and practice hard, or you have the opportunity to get in the game, and you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, there’s a good chance you might not touch that football field,” Bedford said. “That’s just where we are with a lot of those guys right now.”
Having given up 13 passing plays of 30 or more yards through the air in the first five games, the Boyd-Bonney duo has helped reduce the mistakes, only allowing three such plays in the last two games, a significant improvement.
In 2014, Strong built his defense around restricting those chunk plays through the air, so it’s clearly still a big priority to him. And he’s willing to sacrifice numerous first downs right at the sticks to avoid them.
“We’re looking for a combination or a tandem where they can stay out there on the field and get us off the field to where we’re not giving up the home runs, where we’re not giving up the throws over our head,” he said.
According to the Texas head coach, Davis and Hill will continue to get opportunities at playing time, but they likely won’t see the field in high-leverage situations until they earn the trust of the coaching staff in practice.
Still, none of that quite gets to where the blame lies here.
Hypothetically, let’s imagine that the two players deserve all of it for their poor play and lack of recent playing time as a result. Let’s imagine that Jennings isn’t culpable for the fact that both are worse players this year than they were last year.
Even in that scenario, all of this still lands on Strong, as with the other issues currently facing the program — these were two of the cornerbacks that he really wanted in the 2015 class.
These are his guys. They showed promise last year and haven’t improved. Neither he nor his coaches have gotten through to them. Those are vetting and coaching problems as much as personal problems.