With only three games remaining in the 2016 regular season for the Texas Longhorns, the leading cornerbacks for head coach Charlie Strong’s defense aren’t preseason All-Big 12 pick Davante Davis and fellow former starter Holton Hill.
Instead, the mercurial Kris Boyd and much-maligned John Bonney are helping to turn around a pass defense that was giving up big plays by the handful as recently as the Oklahoma game.
Strong took over the defense for demoted coordinator Vance Bedford in early October, two weeks after he promised to get things fixed.
In the last four games, the ‘Horns have held each opponent under its season scoring average, reduced the yards per play allowed from 6.4 to 5.1, and registered 19 sacks and 36 tackles for loss.
All of those negatives plays have made things easier for the defensive backfield, which has allowed only two passing plays of 40 or more yards in four games after giving up six in five games to start the season, with one of those games coming against UTEP, which started its back-up quarterback. Four of those plays early in the season went for 50 or more yards.
Strong helped solve communication issues on the back end by giving players wristbands avoid coverage busts, then inserted Bonney in to the starting line up against Iowa State to join Boyd, who started for the first time this season against Oklahoma.
By playing more man coverage and more match-up zone in addition to instances of high-pressure packages like calling zero blitzes seven straight times against Baylor, Strong made things more simple for his cornerbacks and did more to produce those negatives plays.
In the Texas Tech game, the staff appeared to reach a comfort zone in finding the right assignments for each player in the secondary while using a spy to reduce the risk of playing man coverage on third downs.
Despite some evidence to the contrary not so long ago, Strong and Bedford and defensive backs coach Clay Jennings didn’t forget how to do their respective jobs.
Considered a co-starter at the beginning of the season, Boyd built off of his special teams success to gradually become the team’s lock-down cornerback. Once known for mental mistakes, the Gilmer product has worked hard off the field to make sure that he can make plays on the field and avoid silly penalties.
“I've just focused on helping any way I can — that's maturing and learning from mistakes,” Boyd said on Tuesday.
It was all part of making sure that his head coach could believe in him.
“I felt like I wanted him to trust me,” Boyd said. “I just focused on taking care of my academics and everything that was off the field. And if I do that then eventually everything on the field would just fall in place.”
Against Oklahoma, Boyd recorded a career-high nine tackles, then broke up three passes against Iowa State. In the Baylor game, his early deflected pass landed in the hands of nickel back PJ Locke, setting up a 37-yard D’Onta Foreman touchdown run on the following play.
Eight solo tackles placed second on the team against Texas Tech, but the biggest play of his career came with the Red Raiders threatening to close the margin to two points with time running out:
The interception was the first of the former US Army All-American’s career, but likely won’t be the last if his positive trajectory continues.
Always confident — Boyd is known as one of the biggest trash talkers on the team — the next evolution is deepening his understanding of the game.
“He can forget,” Strong said on Monday. “Like sometimes you always tell a defensive back, ‘You got to forget the last play.’ He can very easily forget the last play. He probably needs to remember some of them, but...”
But Boyd always bounces back if he makes a mistake.
“I’m all right, I’m all right, coach,” Boyd will say. “I’ll be okay.”
Bonney could use a little bit more of that confidence.
Picked on against Kansas State to the tune of seven catches on nine targets for 53 yards and a touchdown, Bonney rebounded against Baylor, perhaps gaining some belief in himself when he twice ran with Bears deep threat KD Cannon to avoid big plays, breaking up two passes.
The improvement continued against Texas Tech, as the Houston product broke up two more passes, including a would-be touchdown just before the half.
Bonney also forced a fumble in the game after a completed pass when a Texas Tech defender hurdled safety Jason Hall and exposed the ball in the process.
When the 5’10, 181-pounder struggled against teams like Iowa State and Kansas State, some of the problems appeared to be physical — Bonney just didn’t get out of his breaks fast enough to contest passes, often giving up completions right in front of him.
In high school, Bonney didn’t exactly burn up the track in running a 4.62 40-yard dash at a Nike event, but he did post a 4.10 shuttle time that is quite good — Boyd, by contrast, ran a 4.18 shuttle at a similar event.
So Strong believes that the problems are more mental than physical.
“Yeah, Bonney, he has all the physical tools that you need,” the Texas head coach said. “It was just more mentally for him. He's one of those young men that he studies the game hard. But when he gets to the game, it's almost like he locks up.”
Worrying about making mistakes could explain why Bonney had so much trouble getting pushed so far past the first-down markers on repeated occasions in October.
And it’s certainly easy to mount a case for him as a conscientious kid — he was a first-team Academic All-Big 12 selection in 2015, is a three-time member of the Big 12 commissioner’s honor roll, and on the eve of National Signing Day 2014, he spent the whole night praying about whether he should flip to Baylor or stick with Texas.
As a result of Bonney’s tight play, Strong and the other secondary coaches are currently in the process of building him up.
“Listen, you can't lock up, you just got to go play. Go play and let it happen for you,” they tell him.
Slowly but surely, it’s paying dividends.
“He's doing really well for us,” Strong said. “He's just one of those guys that he will continue to get better. He has the size that you're looking for, he has the speed. Don't be afraid to take chances, don't be afraid to just go lock down guys and play within yourself.”
Even Hill is responding now after spending most of the season allowing touchdown passes or in the dog house of his coaches — he made six open-field tackles and didn’t make any egregious mistakes.
The West Virginia offense is capable of producing big passing plays with explosive threats like Shelton Gibson, so perhaps the Mountaineers can do more to exploit Bonney than the Bears or Red Raiders.
Perhaps there will be a coverage breakdown that produces a long gain, the likes of which the ‘Horns haven’t seen for several weeks.
For right now, however, the signs are encouraging, from the standpoints of effective communication, effective schemes, and effective execution by the cornerbacks themselves.