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Texas secondary shuffling to replace departed starters, Lightning package installation

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Meanwhile, it’s time for a key junior to emerge as a difference maker.

NCAA Football: Texas at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Without departed starters DeShon Elliott and Holton Hill, and two senior contributors in Antwuan Davis and Jason Hall, the Texas Longhorns are working this spring to replace several key contributors as the coaches work to find the best combination in the starting backfield.

The loss of Elliott is arguably the most significant, because Texas had some time to adjust to the new rotation following Hill’s late-season suspension that ultimately ended his Longhorn career. However, since that shuffle included moving Davis into the starting nickel position and the presence of Hall allowed the Lightning package to work, each of those players became an important cog in the improved Texas pass defense.

Battling to replace Elliott at safety are senior John Bonney and redshirt sophomore Chris Brown. Bonney has now seemingly played every position in the secondary and will retain that versatility — head coach Tom Herman said that Bonney was the first option at the B-backer position in the Lightning package, which the defensive staff started to install on Tuesday.

A starter over 15 of his 37 career games, Bonney spent some time at that position last year when it debuted, though Hall eventually won the job. Now that he’s in his fifth season, which makes him the longest-tenured defensive back on the roster, Bonney has a chance to elevate his understanding of multiple different positions as he gains a mastery of the overall scheme.

Primarily a special teams contributor last season in the final 11 games, Brown is a hard hitter who will also get a chance at B-backer in the Lightning package. If Texas decides that it wants an enforcer at that position, Brown is the best bet on the roster to fill that role previously occupied by the Joker, DeShon Elliott’s on-field alter ego.

In that Lightning personnel grouping, senior nickel back PJ Locke III slides back to the boundary safety position, while sophomore cornerback Josh Thompson replaces Locke over the slot receiver. Thompson is now healthy after playing through a knee injury last season that required surgery.

One of the key storylines as the spring advances will be the play of junior safety Brandon Jones now that he’s entering his second season as a full-time starter. Players like Elliott and Hill were able to make major leaps as juniors and it’s time for Jones to do the same.

Last season, he mixed in enough good moments to finish third on the team in tackles with 61, while adding four tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries, two passes broken up, and a forced fumble. However, in 13 starts and 24 games overall, he’s still looking for his first career interception.

Game-changing plays are one thing, but what Herman really wants out of Jones is consistency so he can avoid avoid game-changing plays in the other direction — Jones took too many bad angles, missed too many tackles, and had too many issues in coverage last season. The hope is that those are just growing pains.

“I know that sounds like coach speak but I think we all saw him make some great plays and then just some ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that happened’ plays,” Herman said on Thursday. “That’s going to be the big thing for him. We’ll take the few great plays, but the rest of the time need to be steady, consistent plays.”

The same holds true for senior cornerback Davante Davis, who emerged out of the doghouse when Hill was suspended. Like Jones, Davis gave up some plays in coverage, especially against Texas Tech. Against Missouri in the Texas Bowl, however, Davis turned in the best game of his career — six tackles, an interception, a forced fumble, and a pass broken up.

Not a bad day for any cornerback, but it was especially impressive from a player who started nine consecutive games between the end of 2016 and the start of 2017 before falling out of the rotation for roughly a year. And all that was under two different coaching staffs, as Davis didn’t exactly make a splash with Jason Washington any more so than he had with Clay Jennings the year before.

Most of all, the emphasis for the entire secondary will be on commanding Orlando’s scheme to minimize the coverage breakdowns that defined the 2017 season until after the Oklahoma game. If the ‘Horns can accomplish that feat, this fall the defensive backs should look a lot more like the group that ended the season with a win against the Tigers and a lot less like the group that gave up too many big plays when the Terrapins came to Austin.

Even with the four departures.