The Texas Longhorns have been back practicing for close to a week now after a weeklong pause due to COVID-19 protocols, and senior cornerback Josh Thompson and junior running back Roschon Johnson met with the media via Zoom on Tuesday to provide an update.
Both players shared insights into some of their teammates who have stood out early in spring practice, including McNeese State graduate transfer cornerback Darion Dunn.
“Darion Dunn is a really competitive person — he talks about, like I said, high energy every day,” Thompson said. “He’s smart. He’s a great athlete, fast, does everything right and he doesn’t make any mistakes, and he’s just been accountable, and that’s what we need, more guys on this team just like that.”
With the position change and then departure of Jalen Green to Mississippi State, Dunn is now serving as the third cornerback along with Thompson and senior D’Shawn Jamison. A 21-game starter and track standout at McNeese State, Dunn has an intriguing skill set with a combination and proven speed and proven production, including five interceptions and 18 pass break ups as a junior.
When Dunn joined the program, the question was whether Texas would make some changes in the secondary like moving Thompson to nickel back to allow junior Chris Adimora to play safety, but Thompson said that he’s still been working outside at cornerback — call it mostly the status quo so far.
One reason for that may be the continued development of sophomore Jerrin Thompson, who looked instinctual during starts against Kansas State and Colorado that featured his first career interception against the Wildcats and a team-high six tackles (five solo) in the Alamo Bowl against the Buffaloes.
Now that Thompson has gone through a second winter conditioning on the Forty Acres, junior running back Roschon Johnson sees him becoming more of a physical presence in the secondary.
Following the departures of Caden Sterns and Chris Brown, as well as the transfer of Xavion Alford to USC, Texas was thin enough at the safety position to move graduate transfer Brenden Schooler from wide receiver during the season. After a productive season at safety for Oregon as a freshman, Schooler has adjusted quickly to his old role.
“Same thing goes for Brenden Schooler,” Thompson said, comparing Schooler to Dunn. “He played safety at Oregon, you can see how easy the transition was for him to go to safety and make plays and everything that he’s doing and he’s just a ballplayer. Like I said, we need more of those.”
Early enrollee safety JD Coffey III has impressed Thompson as well, along with early enrollee cornerback Jamier Johnson, who missed his senior season in California when it was pushed back to the spring.
“Him and JD Coffey, those are freshmen and they came ready,” Thompson said. “Everything they do is with a purpose and I’m very high on those guys.”
Coffey in particular could make a run at the safety rotation this season after an incredibly productive career at Kennedale that included 313 tackles, 28 tackles for loss, 19 interceptions, 25 pass break ups, and 10 touchdowns.
“Every week when you watch this film, it’s highlight-worthy hits and I know he’s going to be roaming the secondary for a while here at DKR imposing his will on some of those receivers coming across the middle,” former head coach Tom Herman said when Coffey signed in December.
One major need for the Longhorns is on the edge, where the team suffered the departures of Joseph Ossai, Reese Leitao, and Marqez Bimage, leaving the group sapped for depth. So new head coach Steve Sarkisian brought in LSU graduate transfer Ray Thornton to compete for a starting job. So far, Thompson said he’s brought leadership ability to the team.
“He came in with high energy — he’s just one of those leaders that they just come in and everybody feels him,” Thompson said.
The two connected quickly thanks to the shared attributes of leading and competing with high energy to meet the expectations that come with holding key roles on the team.
Like Thompson, Johnson is also impressed with Thornton setting a tone for the entire defensive line with his work in practice and conditioning.
On offense, Johnson has noticed early enrollee tight end Gunnar Helm, a 6’5, 231-pounder who was encouraged to move from quarterback to tight end by John Elway and caught 28 passes for 387 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior. Fighting into the rotation may be difficult for Helm with so much experience in front of him, but drawing notice from Johnson is a positive start.