Cornerback? Safety? Nickel corner? Dime linebacker? The eventual position of Texas Longhorns signee Eric Cuffee is difficult to predict, but his diverse skill set and ability to play multiple roles in the secondary will add a dynamic element to the position group of new coach Clay Jennings.
In fact, while head coach Charlie Strong called the 6'0, 187-pounder a cornerback during his press conference on National Signing Day, he also mentioned that Cuffee can play safety and play in the middle because of his size.
The first question when Cuffee takes the short journey down I-35 from Waco to Austin this summer is whether he can stick at cornerback. And there some concerns that he can -- Rivals classified Cuffee as a safety and he doesn't quite have ideal speed for the position, as he ran a 4.62 40-yard dash last year at The Opening and a personal best of 11.26 in the 100m as a junior.
However, the 2016 Under Armour All-American can make up for his top-end speed in short areas because of his quickness verified by a 4.1 second shuttle time at the Dallas The Opening Regional camp in 2015. He's also a guy who relishes the opportunity to play outside on an island because of his physicality and footwork, both traits that can minimize one of his biggest perceived weaknesses as a cornerback. Fluid hips allow him to consistently transition smoothly.
There's also evidence that Cuffee can think the game well. At the Under Armour game Cuffee ripped an interception away from an opposing wide receiver and was in position to make the play because of his pre-snap recognition, noticing a route-combination tendency when the ball placement was in the middle of the field and then adjusting his pre-snap alignment as a result to allow a quick jump on the ball when it was thrown.
Cuffee's performance that week resulted in ESPN ranking him as the No. 11 cornerback in the country, the highest of all the services.
And the interception was a good sign because while he broke up eight passes over his three seasons playing on varsity in high school, he only recorded one interception during that stretch. Without more context, it's difficult to say whether he wasn't finishing plays well or simply didn't have many balls thrown in his direction, but it would be a disappointment for him to become a multi-year contributor at Texas and finish with only one interception.
Once he gains an understanding of the scheme, he could play the same type of versatile role occupied in 2015 by Duke Thomas, whose usage varied from week to week -- at times he played nickel, at times he lined up at safety, and even saw some time at dime linebacker. So even if Cuffee can't play cornerback, he could provide a great deal of value at safety because he's such a willing tackler and Strong and his staff already have a ready-made template for him. Cuffee isn't as fast as Thomas, but he's bigger and more physical, so it's easy to envision him at safety, nickel corner, and dime linebacker.
Regardless of what Cuffee does on the field, he's already served an important role in the recruiting class -- his commitment to the 'Horns in late February helped generate momentum heading into National Signing Day and his interactions with other top prospects at the Under Armour game were also beneficial for Texas.
Like a number of other prospects, Cuffee was considered an A&M lean throughout much of the fall until the December meltdown in College Station helped Texas surge late and finish in large part due to Strong's in-home visit.
"I love Coach Strong and the entire coaching staff," Cuffee told Horns247. "I had a great time with Coach Strong when he came for the in-home. My family really liked him. He was really straightforward, and I appreciated that from him. I loved my official visit, and my mom loved it, too."
So Cuffee eventually decided that he believes in Strong's coaching ability and the future of the Texas program, an important decision over Texas A&M in a critical recruiting class for Strong since Cuffee is the only player among the 24 signees recruited to play cornerback.