In 2021, experienced Texas Longhorns cornerbacks like Josh Thompson and D’Shawn Jamison were in the midst of their third defensive coordinator and third position coach in three years. The Longhorns finished eighth in the conference in completion percentage, tied for last in interceptions, and fifth in passer rating while posting more respectable finishes in passing touchdowns (third), yards per attempt (third), and passing yards (second).
With continuity in 2022 for the first time in years and the move to a match-quarters scheme that special assistant to the head coach Gary Patterson helped implement, Texas recorded three more interceptions, reduced the completion percentage of opponents, and dropped the opposing passer rating by 15 points despite incorporating first-year starter Ryan Watts, the Ohio State transfer, and being forced to use young players as Watts and D’Shawn Jamison got banged up at times during the season.
Jamison exhausted his eligibility and Jamier Johnson opted to move on after two seasons on the Forty Acres, but Watts is back and there’s plenty of young talent, from Terrance Brooks to Austin Jordan to early enrollee Malik Muhammad, one of the highest-rated cornerbacks the Longhorns have landed since Curtis Brown in 2007. Texas also added experience from the NCAA transfer portal in Wake Forest’s Gavin Holmes.
At nickel, Jahdae Barron is back after enjoying a breakout junior season, providing Texas with two extremely physical players on the perimeter in Watts and Barron. Expect former walk-on Michael Taaffe to spend more time at the position during the spring due to the knee injury suffered by Jaylon Guilbeau last fall.
At 6’3, 206 pounds, Watts arrived from Columbus facing two major questions — was he fluid enough to stick at cornerback and could he emerge as an impact player after serving in a reserve role in his two seasons with the Buckeyes?
After transferring to Texas to be closer to his family, Watts answered both questions definitely. His length and physicality made him a strong fit at the boundary cornerback position, where he both set the edge against the run like a linebacker and proved effective playing the press coverage required of the position. Happier with his situation personally, Watts made 51 tackles (33 solo) with four tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, and three passes broken up.
An honorable mention Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2022, Watts has a chance to become a first-team all-conference player if he can take advantage of his prototypical frame to make more plays on the football, especially in creating more interceptions.
After struggling to find consistent playing time on the outside, Barron made the move to defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s Star position with Anthony Cook transitioning from nickel to safety. Not only did Cook’s position change help steady the back end of the defense, Barron showed a knack for making plays behind the line of scrimmage, leading the team with 11 tackles for loss while notching 75 tackles and returning an interception and a fumble for touchdowns.
As with Watts, the money-making factor for Barron in 2023 is whether he can come up with more interceptions for a defense that finished ninth in the Big 12 with 14 turnovers last year.
Despite an impressive athletic profile, Holmes was ranked well outside the top 1,000 players in the 2020 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, in part because of his slight stature — he’s now listed at 5’11, 168 pounds. But Holmes emerged as a contributor at Wake Forests with 14 starts in 28 appearances, recording 23 tackles, including 16 solo stops, and nine pass breakups as a sophomore in 2022.
With two career interceptions in three seasons, Holmes isn’t known for creating turnovers, but he is sticky in coverage to the field and will help replace the athleticism and experience of Jamison at the position. If Holmes can show consistent physicality as a tackler, there’s a chance he could provide an upgrade over the up-and-down Jamison.
The Austin Westlake product became a Longhorn legend before ever seeing the field at Texas when he helped secure the commitment of Arch Manning by hosting the nation’s No. 1 prospect on his official visit. But Taaffe also appeared in 13 games with one start in 2022 as a he emerged as a contributor at safety, eventually earning a scholarship after recording 26 tackles (13 solo) with half a tackle for loss and one pass breakup.
This spring, the need for Texas is at nickel with Guilbeau and Taaffe has experience playing the position, where he could potential remain for the 2023 season depending on Guilbeau’s timetable to return and how well the staff develops depth at safety.
How big was the addition of the Little Elm standout on Early Signing Day in 2021? Not only did Brooks flip from Ohio State, a program that has won more than its share of recruiting battles against Texas in recent years, he also became the third highest-rated recruit in the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class and one of the highest-rated cornerbacks signed in years.
Even after enrolling early, however, Brooks had an adjustment period, playing sparingly early in the season despite minor injuries to the starters because other players were ahead of him in the rotation. By the TCU game, however, Brooks made his first of three starts and flashed in the Alamo Bowl with two passes broken up, including a near game-changing interception.
With Brooks likely to compete with Holmes for the starting role at the field cornerback position, the battle will feature the experience of Holmes against the talent of Brooks and could result in both players seeing significant snaps in the fall.
When Jordan signed with Texas as a near top-250 prospect, he was ranked as safety, so it wasn’t clear where he would play in the secondary for the Longhorns. But despite arriving as a summer enrollee, Jordan quickly made an impact on the depth chart, emerging as the backup to Watts at the boundary position.
Jordan is most likely to be a special teams contributor this year barring an injury to Watts, but he’s positioned himself to potentially become a starter in 2024 and served notice as a true freshman that he’s capable of outpacing expectations.
A late flip from Oklahoma, Brice played quarterback and wide receiver in addition to cornerback in high school at Arlington Seguin, positioning the 6’1, 177-pounder as a raw prospect with a low floor and significant ceiling. As a true freshman, Brice appeared in two games and remains a developmental prospect who will eventually have to beat out more highly-ranked players to find a spot in the cornerback rotation. For now, the goal should be to become a special teams contributor while he refines his technique.
Muhammad possesses the attributes of a future standout player — he has prototypical size at 6’0 tall with long arms, he’s shown his athleticism on the track and on the football field, and he won two state championships at South Oak Cliff. Known for his fluidity and smoothness, Muhammad arrived as an early enrollee with an advanced skill set for his age. Factoring into the rotation this fall may be a difficult challenge for Muhammad to overcome, but he projects as an eventual starter with all-conference upside.
In Watts, Barron, and Holmes, Texas has three proven contributors with plenty of young talent behind them — Brooks is one of the best bets on the team to have a breakout season. Coverage ability and tackling aren’t really concerns, so the success of this group will be determined by whether they can come up with more interceptions in 2023.