Beyond athleticism, the most significant requirement for defensive backs is to have a short memory.
In the case of Kobe Boyce against the Oklahoma State Cowboys last fall, that was all the more important for the Texas Longhorns cornerback, as star Cowboys wide receiver Tylan Wallace inflicted five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown on Boyce. In the first quarter.
Unquestionably, it was the type of the trauma that can linger.
Boyce was on the field because starters Kris Boyd and Davante Davis were both suspended for the first quarter in Stillwater, forcing two freshmen into the starting lineup — Boyce and Anthony Cook.
As a result, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando played more conservative schemes, asking Boyce and Cook to play with big cushions and two safeties over the top. Perhaps the scheme kept Boyce from playing with a high level of aggressiveness. Perhaps he was simply out-matched by Wallace, who made a lot of defensive backs look bad last season as he racked up 86 catches for 1,491 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Whatever the case, the performance against Oklahoma State and a big play allowed against Tulsa significantly reduced the expectations for Boyce heading into his sophomore season, even though both starting cornerbacks are now preparing for the NFL Draft.
When senior safety Brandon Jones predicted that Cook and fellow sophomore Jalen Green would be the breakout players on defense this season, it sent Boyce further under the radar.
However, Boyce is working with the ones at the start of spring practice and may be coming into his own entering his third year in the program.
In a team drill on Wednesday, Boyce intercepted a pass from starting quarterback Sam Ehlinger that was tipped by senior linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch and came up with another interception by jumping a route against redshirt freshman wide receiver Al’vonte Woodard in what looked like one-on-one drills.
One day of practice might not mean that much, especially since it wasn’t even in full pads, but it did seem notable that Boyce was the first cornerback mentioned by head coach Tom Herman on Friday when he was asked about the position.
“Kobe Boyce has showed us that he can really play the ball well,” Herman said. “He’s got a knack for getting his head around on deep balls, breaking on balls.”
Knowing when to play through the hands of the wide receiver to break up passes and when to try to find the football is one of the most challenging aspects of playing cornerback. Last season, Boyd often seemed to make the wrong choice. On the year, Boyd and Davis combined for only two interceptions a season after the Texas cornerbacks produced six total.
So if Boyce can prove that he can consistently come up with interceptions, he has a chance to win the starting job over Green and other contenders like sophomore D’Shawn Jamison, who is back on defense after playing wide receiver last season.
Boyce’s athleticism provides some confidence that his issues last season were just a result of inexperience — he ran a 4.49 40-yard dash in high school while posting a 4.12 shuttle and 37.5-inch vertical leap. Other than the shuttle time that Green ran in high school, Boyce tested better than Cook and Green. In the 40, his testing was two tenths of a second better than the two 2018 signees.
And, since speed is the biggest concern with those two players, if it does show up as an issue on the field, the staff has the option of going with Boyce, who has more recovery speed, at least based on those testing times.
Physically, Boyce is still listed at 175 pounds, so he doesn’t have the physical strength of Cook and Green, who are both 15 pounds heavier — that’s a lingering concern, though a second year of winter conditioning likely helped.
Can Boyce hold off the more highly-regarded Green and become a contributor this season? It’s still too early to tell, but the first really positive signs pointing in that direction are finally emerging.