The Texas Longhorns secondary suffered significant setbacks throughout the past two weeks, as junior safety DeShon Elliott and junior cornerback Holton Hill each elected to bypass their senior seasons and declare for the NFL Draft. Prior to his Nov. 7 suspension, which prevented Hill from participating in the final three games of his Longhorn career, the Houston native had emerged as arguably the top talent the Texas defense boasted under Todd Orlando.
Hill’s decision to depart now leaves Orlando and cornerbacks coach Jason Washington tasked with filling fairly sizable shoes on the outside, which should prove far easier said than done.
Bearing that in mind, it’s worth noting that expectations should be tempered in regards to whichever Longhorn assumes the role Hill leaves behind.
Although he only played nine games his season prior to his suspension, Hill’s productivity throughout those appearances was among the most successful of any cornerback in college football. His general stats may not be the most eye-popping, as Hill recorded 51 tackles, six pass breakups, and two interceptions — both of which were returned for touchdowns — but the picture is a bit blurry due to the sheer fact that Hill became a lockdown defender. As Hill’s success against the opposition’s top option considerably increased throughout the season, quarterbacks quite simply stopped throwing in his direction very often. When they did, the results weren’t anywhere near as fruitful as usual. Just ask Oklahoma State’s James Washington, Iowa State’s Allen Lazard, and Baylor’s Denzel Mims.
Washington, who was named the Biletnikoff Award winner, which honors the nation’s top receiver, hauled in just four receptions for 32 yards against Texas, thanks in large part to Hill. The same can be said of Hill’s success elsewhere, as he limited Lazard to just 63 yards and Mims to only 42 yards on four receptions.
The end result of such productivity is a Pro Football Focus grade of 87.7, which is nothing short of elite and ranks No. 11 among all college cornerbacks.
Furthermore, his Pro Football Focus grade of 81.5 as a run stopper speaks the the success he found as arguably the team’s best open field tackler in 2017.
Simply put, unless Kris Boyd elects to return for his senior season and takes a step forward similar to that of his departed teammate between his sophomore and junior campaigns, the ‘Horns won’t feature a talent at cornerback comparable to Hill in 2018.
So where does Texas turn to fill the void Hill leaves behind?
The obvious option is Boyd, as he began to trend upwards later in the season and is far-and-away the most experienced returner, but his immediate future remains up in the air, as well. And even if Boyd does elect to return and takes over the task of defending each opponent’s primary pass catcher, the ‘Horns are still left replacing one starting cornerback.
Davante Davis is another name that will continue to come up until that void at cornerback is ultimately fulfilled, and understandably so. The senior-to-be will return as the most experienced option on the outside, aside from Boyd, considering P.J. Locke III is a nickel back. After watching from the sidelines for much of the season, Davis was thrust into the starting lineup when Hill was benched and in doing so, performed fairly well to the tune of 17 tackles, one interception, and two pass breakups.
It’s worth noting, though, that the Texas staff didn’t completely trust Davis entering the season, as seen with Davis playing only 80 defensive snaps prior to Hill’s suspension. With the sample size still being small, it remains to be seen whether or not Davis can compete throughout the more grueling portion of the Texas schedule when USC, Oklahoma, and TCU are on the other side of the ball.
Unfortunately for Texas, the available options beyond Boyd and Davis offer potential and little else.
Head coach Tom Herman recently had high praise for redshirt freshman Kobe Boyce, but he’s obviously yet to see the field at Texas. The same is true for Eric Cuffee, who arrived in Austin as a four-star prospect in 2016, redshirted and then spent the entire 2017 season sidelined. Donovan Duvernay is another name to keep an eye on in that regard, as he did not play this season, either.
Meanwhile, high-upside options in Josh Thompson and Chris Brown saw the field in 2017, but mostly on special teams, as the two combined to play just 47 defensive snaps this season.
Of course, the ‘Horns have a historically stacked 2018 defensive back class in store, but BJ Foster and Caden Sterns will compete for reps at safety, DeMarvion Overshown may very well end up at outside linebacker and D’shawn Jamison fits the mold of Locke’s replacement at nickel back following the 2018 season. That leaves Jalen Green, the physical Houston Heights product and No. 6-ranked cornerback prospect in the nation, and, quite possibly, five-star Houston Lamar product Anthony Cook, should he side with the ‘Horns on Dec. 20 as is projected.
A major selling point in each of their recruitments was early playing time, and justifiably so. Green, and potentially Cook, certainly look the part of the Longhorns future on the outside, but as part of the adjustment period that comes with jumping from not only the high school level to Power 5 football, but the most pass-happy league in the nation, becoming college-ready is far easier said than done.
Based on his sheer elite coverage skills and the fact that he’ll be an early enrollee at the college of his choice, Cook would seemingly have the upper hand of any newcomer if he does, in fact, remain in state. But how long would it take Cook to separate himself from guys like Boyce and Thompson, who have been on campus and able to develop for a full season?
In short, with at least one hole to fill at cornerback, Orlando and Washington should have an abundance of options, but they’re almost entirely inexperienced and unproven.
Should Boyd bypass the opportunity to turn pro and return for his final season in Austin, the Gilmer product is a shoe-in starter. Opposite of him, at least entering spring football, will likely be Davis, Thompson, or potentially even Boyce, with Cook battling for time if he signs this month.
Fortunately for the ‘Horns, Texas has nearly 10 months to figure out how it will aim to fill the sizable shoes Hill left behind as he heads to the NFL.