Love him or hate him, Texas Longhorns senior safety Dylan Haines unquestionably sparks strong feelings.
His loyalists might point to the fact that he’s risen from a walk on with no chance of playing under former head coach Mack Brown to a likely three-year starter.
His detractors might point to his lack of athleticism and struggles making open-field tackles.
Regardless of how the burnt orange faithful might feel, there’s also no question that the Lago Vista product and Longhorns legacy has the trust of head coach Charlie Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford.
He earned it the hard way and kept it with his diligent work habits that serve as an example to younger players like sophomore safety DeShon Elliott, who is battling for one of the starting positions, but is more likely to beat out junior Jason Hall than Haines.
The story of how Haines got to where he is now starts in the 1980s, when his father John was a four-year football lettermen and All-SWC selection. John married a Texas track athlete and their son perhaps wasn’t always destined for the Longhorns, but when Dylan didn’t receive any Division I or Division II scholarships despite a productive career at multiple positions for Lago Vista, he chose to walk on at Texas.
Knowing that his upside was likely as a tackling dummy, Haines kept working, even though he didn’t receive much of an opportunity from Brown.
"My second year I wasn't given the opportunities in practice or in spring ball and camp to really show what I was capable of,” Haines said in 2014. “I was kind of just limited to running the scout team against the first team offense. I guess, yeah, just a lack of opportunity was the real problem."
But when Strong arrived in Austin after Haines’ redshirt freshman season, he had an opportunity as a result of ineffectiveness and behavioral issues on the part of scholarship players.
It didn’t take Haines long to make an impact -- as he often is for the Longhorns, Haines was in the right spot to intercept a pass from quarterback Tyrone Swoopes on the fourth snap of the 2014 Orange and White game. All of a sudden, he was an unlikely contender for a starting position.
After that, all he had to do was survive a summer of attrition. Other players did not, or barely hung on — Chevoski Collins was dismissed and Josh Turner was suspended for the first two games and never seriously cracked the rotation after that. Meanwhile, 2013 safety signee Erik Huhn was attempting to recover from injuries and never ended up playing for the Longhorns.
By the time the season started, the kid with no scholarship offers out of high school was placed on scholarship by Strong.
"He does everything you ask him to do," Strong said that fall.
Like work hard in the film room.
Against Iowa State in 2014, Haines knew exactly what the Iowa State Cyclones were running because he had seen it plenty of times on film, so he broke on the football just as Cyclones quarterback Sam Richardson released it into the flat, pulling it in before racing towards the sideline, then cutting it back inside and finishing the 74-yard return in the south end zone of the stadium, sending the partisan crowd at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium into a frenzy.
The game-changing play helped the ‘Horns emerge with a hard-fought, last-second victory over the Cyclones.
The 6’1, 201-pounder had taken over as the starter for the second game of the season and didn’t leave the starting lineup until a knee injury that required offseason surgery kept him out of the Baylor game last December.
When Haines moved into the starting lineup, he’d already made his case for the job with an interception in his first appearance for Texas in the season opener against North Texas.
Two other interceptions helped him total four on the year and gave the sophomore the team lead in that category. Haines also finished second on the team in pass break ups (seven), third on the team in tackles (86), and tied for fourth in special teams tackles (four).
Last season, Haines once again led the team in interceptions, this time with five. His seven passes defenses also paced the ‘Horns, and his 47 tackles ranked sixth.
However, his liabilities also became more apparent. Haines missed too many tackles, took too many poor angles in pursuit, and struggled too often in coverage as opponents attempted to isolate him and take advantage of his lack of speed.
By the end of the season, a large segment of the fanbase was ready to see what Elliott had to offer after the freshman forced a critical fumble on special teams against Oklahoma and intercepted two passes against Kansas.
Unlike in 2014, Texas will have some safety talent on campus this fall — the nation’s No. 1 safety in the 2015 class, Brandon Jones, fellow signee Chris Brown, sophomore John Bonney, and Elliott, a 2015 Under Armour All-American who built on his 2015 flashes by delivering several crushing hits in the Orange and White game. Another Under Armour All-American, 2016 signee Eric Cuffee, could also end up at safety.
But don’t expect Haines to give up his hard-earned starting job unless players like Hall and Elliott become studious enough to avoid the alignment mistakes that Haines helps mitigate with his preparation and understanding of Strong’s defense.
In fact, Bedford harped on the importance of communication during the spring after challenging Hall to stop relying on Haines to get him in position.
“We need to do a better job of talking to each other, talking things out — and the one thing for us, everything is a number count,” Bedford said. “It's like one, two, three. If I'm a linebacker I relate to number three, if I'm a defensive back I relate to number two.
“You'd be amazed sometimes, we have a hard time counting to three, and when we can get that done that means we can get in line properly. And when we communicate and count one, two, three, and sometimes four, I think we'll be okay.”
Even as Hall and Elliott improve there and Jones and Brown get acclimated to college football, Haines provides the coaching staff with the security of knowing that he won’t be out of position.
“The mental side of the game, I would say, is somewhere around 80%,” Haines said this spring. “So if you're the greatest athlete that doesn't necessarily mean that you can play.”
“We play a complicated defense and I think that's good, because if you know what to do, you can anticipate things coming. That's something that I take a lot of pride in my game, is just being able to anticipate things. If you know it's coming it's a lot easier to defend it.”
So far, the result is 200 interception return yards for Haines in two seasons, a number that ranks second all time at Texas. All that despite the limited athleticism that often exposes him in coverage.
Love him or hate him, Haines is likely to play a high number of snaps once again in 2016, and even his detractors should be able to admit that his success story — from walk on to starter to a notable place in the Texas record book — is one of the most compelling in recent Longhorns football history.