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Young Texas secondary showing flashes of greatness and growing pains

While the freshman safeties made plays against Tulsa, the young cornerbacks gave up some big plays.

Tulsa v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

All of a sudden, a starting secondary for the Texas Longhorns that was supposed to feature three seniors, a junior, and a freshman turned into a full-fledged youth movement on Saturday against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane due to injuries.

With senior cornerback Davante Davis out with a sprained neck and junior safety Brandon Jones sidelined with a high ankle sprain, sophomore Josh Thompson stepped in at nickel as senior PJ Locke III moved to safety and redshirt freshman Kobe Boyce replaced Davis opposite senior Kris Boyd.

Meanwhile, freshmen safeties Caden Sterns and BJ Foster continued to prove that they belong on the college stage.

On the first play of the game, Sterns came up with the first interception of his college career before recording four tackles and a half tackle for loss in his second career start.

By the end of the first quarter, fellow freshman BJ Foster recorded the first interception of his career.

“I’ve been so impressed with him and Caden,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said on Wednesday. “It’s so hard to learn a package, come into a place and have eight or nine months, whatever it is. Those guys... I mean, they’re savvy, they’re smart, they really, really care, they work at it. I don’t want to say this, because I don’t want to jinx the kids, but if they keep going, they are going to be two really special players.”

So far, so good.

While Sterns and Foster are already making an impact on the field, the freshman cornerbacks are still biding their time, though Jalen Green and Anthony Cook did see the field against Tulsa. Orlando called Green a work in progress — he spent plenty of time on offense at Houston Heights — and said that he needs to work on his consistency in practice, as does Cook.

For now, at least, Thompson and Boyce are the two players thrown into the mix.

Boyce made his debut against Maryland when Davis suffered his injury and had some rough moments, as he was beat on the touchdown pass from Jeshaun Jones to Taivon Jacobs. The struggles continued against Tulsa.

“In my opinion, Kobe had two not too good plays,” Orlando said. “There’s one on the sidelines where he kind of pushes a guy out of bounds. Then obviously he gets beat on the throw, but the kid has come a long way since we’ve been here. If you play that position at this level, bad things are probably going to end up happening. I’m happy with Kobe. Obviously, he’s a youthful kid, and he’s going to learn on the run.”

The Tulsa passing offense is also largely built around making bad things happen to young cornerbacks like Boyce. The telecast didn’t provide a good look at what exactly happened when Boyce gave up the 35-yard touchdown pass to narrow the Texas lead to 28-21, but it did look like he had good initial positioning and then the wide receiver beat him out of his break, possibly as Boyce attempted to look back for the football.

Thompson played better, showing the needed physicality and some versatility as a blitzer in picking up a quarterback hurry. Early in the game, he also showed strong ball skills in getting his head around to make a play on the football while defending a Tulsa wide receiver in the end zone. Thompson made the pass more difficult by using the sideline to his advantage on the out-breaking switch route.

“Josh has been really consistent,” Orlando said. “Josh has his moments, like every one of those kids have their moments. They’re all young guys, and they just need to continue to play the game.”

The moment for Thompson came early in the fourth when he had good coverage down the field against the Tulsa wide receiver, but the 48-yard pass was underthrown by Luke Skipper. Thompson wasn’t able to recover as the receiver made a play on the ball, leading to the first touchdown scored by the Golden Hurricane.

“I think some of it goes into technique and some of it goes into youthfulness, to be honest with you,” Orlando said of the long passes completed against the defense. “So is it a major, major concern? A little bit. When I see balls getting thrown and they are through a guy’s hands, absolutely. I feel the same way that you guys feel, but that to me is just practice habits and technique.”

Experience will certainly help, too, as young cornerbacks inevitably go through growing pains at a position where mistakes often lead to long completions and touchdowns.

The trickle-down effect on the defense is be a reluctance to use blitz packages in order to keep more players in coverage and make sure those cornerbacks don’t get isolated in too many one-on-one matchups without safety help. Head coach Tom Herman mentioned as much as Monday.

“There also has to be a fine line when you’re as young as we are in the secondary too of the easiest way to pressure a quarterback is to blitz and, but you’re also leaving a young secondary maybe susceptible to some big plays there,” Herman said. “So it’s a balancing act. We got to get better with our four-man pass rush and then we probably do need to heat some teams up a little bit more and trust our, that we have coached our young DB’s well enough that they’re going to make the play when called upon.”

Right now, it’s the young safeties proving most capable of making the big plays while Thompson steadily grows into his future starting role in the nickel and Boyce combats the learning curve of a redshirt freshman opposite a lockdown corner.

One takeaway stands out above the rest, however — the kids are gonna be alright.