For the Texas Longhorns, the pedigree of defensive backs reads like a 'Who's Who' of college football. From Raymond Clayborn to Johnnie Johnson to Jerry Gray to Quentin Jammer, a long list of defensive backs have visited the Forty Acres and become stars.
When former defensive backs coach Duane Akina arrived in 2001, he furthered this reputation by assembling the finest group of defensive backs in the country. Slowly, Texas earned the title of "DBU."
From 2001-2014, the Longhorns set the golden standard for defensive back play, earning 14 first-team All Big-12 selections, two Thorpe Award Winners, and getting 13 players selected in the NFL Draft. Michael Huff, Aaron Ross, Michael Griffin, and Earl Thomas all etched their names into Longhorn greatness under Akina's watch and solidified Texas as the preeminent home for defensive backs.
On the Texas defense, the defensive backs will always represent something special. When Duane Akina and the Mack Brown regime departed Austin, the heavy expectations for the program's defensive backfield didn't leave with it.
Since Charlie Strong's arrival, the group has seen its ups and downs. In 2014, an experienced group helped the Longhorns finish 14th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game and had two players selected in the NFL Draft (Quandre Diggs and Mykkele Thompson). However, 2015 told a much different story. With an inexperienced group led by freshman corners, the group consistently struggled in coverage and limped to 73rd in the country in passing yards allowed per game.
A year under their belt, the Longhorns expect much bigger things from their defensive backs in 2016, whose talent doesn't reflect its play last season. Led by heralded recruits Davante Davis, Holton Hill, and Kris Boyd, the cornerback position looks primed for a breakout season that could lead to several accolades. The competition at nickel back features returning sophomores PJ Locke and John Bonney, who will both vie to make a dent at a key position after meaningful work in 2015.
At safety, the 'Horns return seasoned veterans Jason Hall and Dylan Haines, who have both made splashes on the backside for the team before and will be counted on for their leadership in 2016. Sophomore DeShon Elliott and incoming mega-recruit Brandon Jones will push Hall and Haines for playing time as well, as their talent has many coaches and fans excited about their bright futures. The Longhorns also add talented incoming freshmen Chris Brown and Eric Cuffee, who will occupy different roles across the field in their first season on campus and also provide meaningful depth.
New defensive backs coach Clay Jennings has big shoes to fill in Austin, but he has great talent to work with.
Davante Davis, So., 1L
Kris Boyd, So., 1L
Eric Cuffee, Fr., HS
P.J. Locke, So., 1L
John Bonney, So., 1L
Holton Hill, So., 1L
Antwuan Davis, Jr., 2L
Sheroid Evans, Sr., 3L
Jason Hall, Jr., 2L
Brandon Jones, Fr., HS
Kevin Vaccaro, Sr., 3L
Dylan Haines, Sr., 2L
DeShon Elliott, So., 1L
Chris Brown, Fr., HS
Duke Thomas-UDFA (Texans)
The cornerstone of the defensive backfield will be the cornerbacks for the Longhorns. Led by the talented trio of Davante Davis, Holton Hill, and Kris Boyd, the coaches believe they have one of the most talented group of young defensive backs in the country.
Arguably the most talented of this group is Holton Hill. Nicknamed "Hollywood," the sophomore from Houston shined in his first season in Austin, starting at corner by the end of the 2015 season. In his first season, Hill ranked second on the team with four pass breakups (PBUs) and finished sixth on the team in tackles. Hill also battled against top notch Big 12 receivers week in and week out with success, looking most impressive in one-on-one coverage. His play in his first season even earned him honorable mention All-Big 12 honors.
The best example of Hill's potential came against Oklahoma State in a pivotal moment in the third quarter. After dropping perfectly into zone coverage and reading the quarterback's eyes, Hill jumped the route and returned the ball for a 41-yard pick six. As you can see below, Hill possesses a maturity unseen among young cornerbacks and will build upon this success in 2016.
So what will the Longhorns ask of Hill in 2016? He can easily make the argument he's the best defensive back on this roster and his duties will reflect that. He can play on both sides of the field, drop in zone coverage, or play man coverage. He also has incredible ball skills and shows great ability high pointing a ball and making plays.
One of his most overlooked traits is his physicality at the line of scrimmage. Standing at 6'2, 195 pounds, Hill has the size that NFL scouts covet with a rare ability to lock down receivers in bump and run coverage that many smaller defensive backs struggle with. Simply put, he's an elite talent that will be asked to do a lot of things on the field. Texas fans should be very enthusiastic about Hill because if he continues to improve, he could be a guy that earns an all-conference nod.
Starting across from Hill will be another sophomore, Davante Davis. For as much love as Hollywood deservedly merits, Davis is another player the Texas staff is incredibly high on. Like Hill, Davis has incredible size (6'2, 199 pounds) for the position and raw athleticism that coaches can't teach. After staring the year as a back up, Davis' innate skill at the position and incredible athleticism made him a starter for the last five games of the 2015 campaign. In his staring role, Davis excelled, leading the team with seven pass break ups and recording one interception.
What makes Davis so valuable at cornerback is his physical presence on the field. He's a daunting figure at corner back with his size and has no problems battling bigger outside wide receivers. In addition, he shows excellent instincts out wide and has a nose for finding the football, as exemplified by his team-leading seven pass break ups.
He plays well in zone coverage, but can go against the best receivers on any offense in man-to-man coverage, where he specializes. Not only can Davis run stride for stride with most receivers, but his ball skills and jumping ability allow him to track and defend throws in a way that many defenders cannot on the Texas roster. Davis embodies the lockdown corner role and some in Austin believe he could be a dark horse for All-American honors.
Last but not least in the trio of sophomores is Kris Boyd. While Boyd is not listed as a starter on the depth chart, many coaches consider him to virtually be one because of the amount of playing time he'll receive in 2016. A former US Army All-American, Kris Boyd came to Texas as one of the most prized recruits in Charlie Strong's 2015 class. While Boyd sits behind two extremely talented corners, he'll be on the field a lot during 2016, especially in a pass-happy Big 12. Boyd is an extremely fast, athletic corner who can cover outside or inside the numbers in pass coverage.
In 2016, look for Boyd to occupy a role that Duke Thomas did, traveling across the field from the slot to outside or even safety, depending on match ups. He'll particularly shine in the Longhorns "Cheetah" package, a third-down/passing situations package that defensive coordinator Vance Bedford often uses. Used heavily against Oklahoma, Cheetah is a dime package that calls for standing defensive lineman and aggressive play from the corners, especially those in the slot, in man coverage and blitzes. With his athleticism, Boyd seems like the perfect player for this role.
At nickel back, the starter is assumed to be sophomore P.J. Locke. Locke was one of the latest additions to the 2015 recruiting class, but locked down playing time towards the end of last season. Locke is a super athlete with great speed and physicality that you look for in your nickel back. He shined in the spring game in limited reps as well, specifically running stride for stride on a deep ball against Lorenzo Joe and making a pass break up. He's a very young and talented player who may take control of the position and never look back.
The situation at safety is vastly different from that at cornerback. The safety position is anchored by two upperclassmen for the Longhorns, senior Dylan Haines and junior Jason Hall, who come into 2016 after being often criticized last season. After both players showed strong performances in 2014, they seemed to both take a step back this past season. While this is certainly true, the defense as a whole performed much worse in 2015 with inconsistent play at linebacker and weak pass-rushing efforts.
First, we start with the fifth-year senior Dylan Haines. The former walk on has made a name for himself at Texas after earning Charlie Strong's respect during fall camp of his sophomore year, even earning the starting safety position before the season opener in 2014. Haines' story is remarkable, but questions linger if he actually has the athleticism to start at safety for the University of Texas.
Throughout 2015, Haines looked lost and slow in coverage, often times getting beat down field. To make matters worse, Haines lacked in run support and had trouble making tackles in the open field, which he was required to do a lot of in 2015. The bright news for Haines is that he seems to have a nose for the football. In fact, Haines ranks second in UT history with 200 career interception return yards and led the Longhorns with five interceptions in 2015 (3rd in Big 12).
While Haines probably doesn't have the athletic ability you would like to see for a starting safety at Texas, he does show some nice abilities on the back end. The question many ask though is how much patience Charlie Strong will show for his safety? If he struggles like he did in 2015, many feel he will be tempted to go with a stronger, faster DeShon Elliott who played well towards the end of last season. Haines will be pushed for his job during fall camp, but for now, he stands as the Longhorns' starter.
Across from Haines Hall, another guy who struggled in 2015 after an impressive freshman year campaign. An extremely physical player, Hall is renowned for his physicality and ability to help out in run support. In fact, he probably is Texas' hardest hitter on the back end (DeShon Elliott challenges him for that).
However, in pass defense, Hall has seemed to take a step back. In zone coverages, Hall often times struggled finding players across his zone and receivers knifed through the middle of the field against Texas in 2015. On deep routes, he had trouble too in preventing the big play, which is surprising after it wasn't a huge issue in 2014. I haven't given up on Hall as player though because his freshman year still reminds me of what an excellent player he can be. Who didn't love that hit he stuck on Semaje Perine?
Like Haines though, Hall will be challenged in fall camp by incoming star Brandon Jones, the No. 1 safety in the country. If Hall wants to retain his starting spot, he needs to show defensive backs coach Clayton Jennings that he has what it takes to lead this talented group.
Along with the starting rotation, the 'Horns will count on several key back ups to make meaningful contributions in 2016. Among these, the most notable is probably incoming freshman Brandon Jones.
Jones, a consensus four-star recruit, comes to Texas with very high expectations from the coaching staff and Longhorns fans. While Jones may not be the most physically imposing on the field, he easily has the best 'in-game skills' of any safety recruit in the entire 2016 recruiting class. The former Under Armour All-American has excellent playmaking ability at safety and it's going to be extremely hard to keep him off the field this season. Personally, I could see Jones taking over starting responsibilities at safety by midway through the 2016 season.
In addition to Jones, another safety who will receive considerable playing time will be sophomore DeShon Elliott. Also a prized recruit, Elliott is an outstanding athlete whose aggression can't be taught at this level. Elliott contributed at the safety position at the end of last season and shined in limited time.
I think it's long overdue that Elliott receives the starting nod at safety, even though an upperclassmen stands above him. In my opinion, Elliott is a much stronger athlete than either Hall or Haines, and can be better relied upon in pass coverage. Like Jones, I see Elliott gaining the starting nod in 2016 at some point, probably faster than Jones.
At corner, three returning players stand out: John Bonnney, Antuwan Davis, and Sheroid Evans.
Evans' story is a remarkable one. A prized recruit coming out of high school, Evans has battled brutal knee injuries in his time at Texas. In fact, he missed both the 2014 and 2015 seasons due to complications. However, he comes into fall camp finally healthy and ready to make an impact. Evans had some ups and downs in the spring game. In some moments, he looked like the fast athlete we saw out of high school, but other times he got burned, specifically by John Burt for a touchdown. I think Evans will make a sizable impact for the 'Horns in 2016 in the cornerback rotation and will give the Longhorns options if someone succumbs to an injury.
Junior Antwuan Davis returns to the 'Horns hungry for more playing time. With three freshmen ahead of him, it may be hard to get much playing time, but he did have an outstanding spring. Davis played well in the Orange and White game, even intercepting a Tyrone Swoopes pass in the first quarter.
A little-known fact about Davis is that he is the second strongest player on the entire team with 32 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press. There's no doubt Davis is a good athlete, it's just a matter of translating that into meaningful production on the field.
Last, but not least is sophomore John Bonney. The nickel back out of Houston was the target of a lot of criticism during last season, and it's a big reason why he lost his starting job to P.J. Locke. There are questions about whether Bonney can handle the speed or physicality at this level. I see a credible player, but he needs vast improvement. In the Orange and White game, Bonney was notably stiff-armed by Chris Warren on a touchdown run. He needs to play a lot stronger if he wants to see the field and continue to work on his coverage skills.
As for the other two incoming freshmen, Eric Cuffee and Chris Brown, fall camp will really determine how their playing time shakes out. I think Cuffee is an incredible talent and will probably see the field in 2016 for the Longhorns, but it may not be right away. He probably will start on special teams and ease his way into the rotation. On the other hand, Brown will probably redshirt in 2016 with notable safety depth ahead of him.
One of the proud traditions for Texas football is the title of DBU. Although the Longhorns' defensive backs struggled last season, there's reason to believe that this group will restore that reputation in 2016. This group is incredibly talented, and with the right development, could turn into one of the conference's strongest groups.