In a spread league like the Big 12, there are few positions more important defensively than nickel corner. To excel there requires the quickness to deal with darting slot receivers like departed Texas Tech Red Raiders star Jakeem Grant, the physicality to defeat blockers on screen passes, and the blitzing aptitude to disrupt or bring down opposing quarterbacks.
Following the graduation of Duke Thomas, the Texas Longhorns are searching for the team's next nickel corner and former frontrunners like John Bonney and Kris Boyd are falling behind sophomore PJ Locke, the late flip from the Oregn Ducks in the 2015 class who spent last season as a back-up safety.
As a result of the injury to senior safety Dylan Haines, Locke started against Baylor in the 2015 season finale and demonstrated his considerable upside -- not only did he post a career-high seven tackles (five solo), he also posted a tackle for loss and delivered the crunching hit on Bears quarterback Chris Johnson that knocked Johnson out of the game and resulted in a fumble. Fueled by the momentum from that play, the Longhorns scored to take a 17-0 lead from which the Bears never recovered.
This season, he'll have a chance to show off the versatile skill set that has made head coach Charlie Strong a believer.
"This is a guy that blitzes a lot for us, a guy who has to adjust a lot to the different formations," Strong said Thursdasy. "And the thing about P.J. is that he's one of those guys, size-wise, that you like, because he can go back and play the safety position or he can go drop back down and play the nickel for you. He could probably play some corner if we really asked him to. But a very good athlete and has really good speed. A guy who can blitz off the edge, but it's all of those combinations where it's just his speed and size and those things that make him a really good blitzer."
Maybe it's not surprising that Locke is so well-rounded as a football player -- he played safety, linebacker, and cornerback at Beaumont Central high school. He also ran track, posting a good 10.88 100m time as a senior. And as for that aptitude handling all the demands of the nickel position? Not surpring, either, as Locke finished No. 21 in his high school class of 375 by maintaining a 3.85 GPA.
Throw in some athletic pedigree since his father played defensive back for Oklahoma State and his mother was a high school point guard and Locke has an impressive overall profile.
But wait, he's also a self-described gym rat, and his work in the weight room allowed him to gain 15 pounds since the Longhorns announced him as a member of the 2015 class in February of 2015. It's evident from a recent practice photo:
Different Animal this Year pic.twitter.com/7tU4GfOmfz— James PJ Locke III (@PjLocke4) March 11, 2016
Combine all those attributes and the Longhorns could be set at the critical nickel position for the next three years.