With the departure of PJ Locke III, a three-year starter, one of the open competitions during preseason camp for the Texas Longhorns is at nickel, an important position in any defense because it demands a diverse skill set, including the ability to survive in man coverage against speedy slot receivers and get physical against screen passes and outside runs.
This season, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will have his choice between two talented players with vastly different personalities — brash, confident Josh Thompson, a junior with a background at cornerback, and BJ Foster, the quiet, unassuming country kid who played running back at Angleton and at the Joker position as a freshman last season in addition to safety.
Last week, as the two players met with the media, those personalities were on full display.
Asked who he likes to defend on the team, Thompson offered up the name of senior wide receiver Devin Duvernay, who believes that he’s the fastest player in the Big 12. Thompson doesn’t agree with that, though — he was definitive that he thinks he’s faster than Duvernay.
Other than some of the film evidence, like Thompson racing easily past D’Shawn Jamison on his punt return touchdown against Kansas State last year, the high school numbers don’t provide much support for Thompson. His personal record in the 100 meters barely cracked 11 seconds and can’t touch the 10.27 that Duvernay ran at Sachse. Available 40 times tell a similar story — Thompson ran a 4.57, nearly two tenths of a second slower than Duverny’s blazing 4.38.
What about the best blitzer among the defensive backs? Thompson accepts that title, too, after totaling two quarterback hurries last season, which included a start at nickel against USC. So he expects to have a significant influence in that regard in 2019.
At the least, check the box for Thompson is one of the most critical attributes for a cornerback — confidence.
Thompson did name Foster and junior safety Chris Brown as the hardest hitters on the team, but Foster declined to take that title for himself in that battle with Brown.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s not really a battle, though,” Foster said. “We just go out and compete every time, hit as hard as we can — just make a point so they feel us. Because when they feel like you’re a hard hitter, they’re going to try to stay away from you. When they come across the middle, they start getting scared.”
In the physical beatdown of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, Foster played a big role in making sure that the Bulldogs felt the Longhorns. On the first drive, Foster was the first player to hit Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm after coming on a blitz, then forced a fumble running the alley in the second quarter.
So while Thompson might think he’s the best blitzer on the team, Foster has already shown elite ability in that regard, a trait that helps explain why Orlando wanted to move him down towards the line of scrimmage to play nickel this season.
“As a blitzer, very dynamic,” Orlando said last year. “If we have a chance to blitz him, we’re going to try to blitz him because he has really good vision and a way of contorting his body to get through blockers. You saw that versus Oklahoma, you saw that versus Baylor — he has a really natural wiggle to him.”
Consider it the type of vision and fluidity that made Foster such a successful running back at Angleton that he could still play the position in college. Likely at quite a high level. Of course, Foster’s NFL upside resides at safety, so that’s his future, but viewing his defensive ability through the lens of his former exploits on offense helps inform discussions of why he’s so good as a blitzer.
For his part, Foster didn’t have an explanation for that aptitude.
“I was just trying to come up with things on my own,” he said.
The growth for Foster this season, as it is for many second-year players, is his understanding of the game. Last season, the 6’2, 210-pounder said that he was just running around trying to hit people. Now he has a better understanding of Orlando’s defensive concepts and spent time working on his ball skills.
There are other areas for growth, too, as Foster adjusts to his new position — the sophomore credited Locke for his block separation and block destruction during his career, two critical aspects of winning the physical battle on the perimeter.
“That’s something that I need to work on because I’m not used to playing down there,” Foster said. “So last year I got with him a few times to help me improve my game at that position since I knew I’d be playing there.”
However, it’s the coverage aspect that Foster described as the most difficult part of playing nickel. Once again, he admitted a need for growth — the ability to play man coverage on an island.
So, despite Foster’s relatively unqualified success last season, there are two important demands of the nickel position where he admittedly still needs to improve. Combined with his publicly-expressed preference to play off the ball in order to come downhill and deliver his trademark hits, it seems clear that his best long-term fit is not at nickel. In other words, the position change forces Foster to grow in areas where he doesn’t have much experience or natural aptitude and reduces his ability to control the middle of the field and run the alley at safety, two of his best attributes.
As a result, there’s still the question of whether Thompson might win the job outright.
Since the background of the Nacogdoches product is at cornerback, his focus during preseason camp is to gain a deeper understanding of the nickel position and the playbook. In order to do that, Thompson still calls Locke regularly to seek his advice, much like Foster did last season. To play at nickel, Thompson also gained weight during the offseason in order to hold up to the physical demands of the position.
Thompson is also a little more stout than the taller, rangier Foster, so he’s closer to the mold of a typical nickel back intent on block separation and block destruction. And he has more experience playing man coverage, experience that Foster didn’t gain in the same way during his career playing safety, suggesting that Thompson might have a technical advantage in areas like footwork and a comfort level flipping his hips in transition.
As a result, there are reasons to believe that Thompson may be the better option, even though he struggled at times in coverage last season.
If Thompson does win the nickel job, the question is how Orlando can get Foster on the field. The easy answer is the Dime package with Foster once again playing the Joker position that he held down so effectively last season, a better fit for his skill set, particularly as a blitzer coming from different angles.
Of course, Brown might also be among the top 11 defensive players on the team, so Orlando has the further task of getting him playing time. So, if Foster beats out Thompson at nickel, is Brown the next defender to see the field?
The same thinking applies to sophomore safety DeMarvion Overshown, who is once again banged up during preseason camp, but still possesses enormous upside. Perhaps enough to demand playing time.
Due to the surplus of talented players in the secondary, Texas is experimenting with a package that includes eight defensive backs on the field, apparently intended for long down-and-distance situations against offenses that substitute during drives.
No matter what happens with those sub packages, however, the nickel competition is still one of the most important storylines for the Longhorns with the season opener looming in a matter of days and there are still questions about Foster’s fit in that role and whether he will even be the starter there.
Foster freely admits his needed areas for improvement, but perhaps concerns about the sophomore’s fit at nickel are just the differences in personalities at work.
What remains clear is that Foster possesses every bit of toughness that defined his mentor, Quandre Diggs, while Thompson isn’t fazed by his struggles last season because he has prototypical confidence for the position.
Sort it out, TO.