Playing nickel back in the Big 12 is arguably the most demanding defensive assignment in college football — lined up over the slot receiver, nickel backs have to provide run support, defend against screen passes, and make sure that those slot receivers don’t beat them deep, especially on run-pass options.
For PJ Locke III, the demands of playing nickel back didn’t truly catch up to him until last season.
The 6’0, 205-pounder took over the position in 2016 after moving from safety and experienced significant success for the Texas Longhorns — in addition to two interceptions, Locke broke up six passes and had two tackles for loss. More importantly, only Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick recorded a lower passer rating when targeted among all returning Power Five cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Locke had a lockdown season.
So the expectations were high entering 2017. During the spring, head coach Tom Herman called Locke’s parents to praise them “for sending us a marvelous human being.” Locke was subsequently named a team captain and represented the Longhorns at Big 12 Media Days.
Herman made sure to caveat his spring praise by noting that he didn’t know if Locke could translate his vocal leadership into success on the football field and that proved prescient. In the opener against Maryland, Locke gave up a long touchdown when he was beat in coverage.
Overall, Locke made more tackles in 2017, but did not record an interception and only broke up two passes. Improved run defense wasn’t enough to mask poor pass defense — PFF graded him 355th nationally among qualified defensive backs in coverage. Locke’s overall PFF grade was the lowest among all Texas defensive backs who played more than 40 snaps.
Then, Locke suffered a high ankle sprain against Baylor that caused him to miss the next four games, depriving him of the opportunity to benefit from the increased help in the secondary provided by the maturation of the Lightning package.
When Locke returned for the Texas Bowl against Missouri, it was at the safety position due to DeShon Elliott’s departure for the NFL. Locke responded with arguably his best game of the season, notching seven tackles while forcing a fumble, breaking up a pass, and recording a quarterback hurry.
Locke’s success at safety, combined with his struggles at nickel back, sparked speculation that he might stay in that role as a senior. Rising sophomore Josh Thompson seemed like a prime candidate at nickel after Thompson drew buzz for his play in practice and on special teams.
However, Locke is still at nickel and still the starter this spring as he seeks to write a more positive final chapter to his Longhorns football career. The hope is that his pass defense will more closely resemble his 2016 season than his 2017 season as the Texas secondary tries to recover from losing Elliott, Holton Hill, Antwuan Davis, and Jason Hall.