AUSTIN, Texas — Jerrin Thompson. Jalen Catalon. Kitan Crawford. BJ Allen. Larry Turner-Gooden. BJ Allen.
Five Texas Longhorns defensive backs on the season-opening depth chart and six total have departed the program via the NCAA transfer portal since the window opened in early December. More movement will happen with nickel back Jahdae Barron expected to forego his COVID season of eligibility and declare for the 2024 NFL Draft as cornerback Ryan Watts faces a decision about whether to return, depart for professional football, or enter the portal.
Six defensive backs are members of the 2024 signing class, including Clemson transfer safety Andrew Mukuba, providing a fascinating symmetry to the current roster movement in the wake of last Monday’s Sugar Bowl loss to Washington.
What the transfers and the additions suggest is that head coach Steve Sarkisian, secondary coach Terry Joseph, and safeties coach Blake Gideon are turning to Mukuba to lead a youth movement in the defensive backfield highlighted by versatility and a higher level of athleticism.
What the departures mean
None of the losses loom as particularly impactful for the Longhorns, the ideal outcome for portal losses.
Allen, Turner-Gooden, and Brice were all non-contributors who couldn’t find snaps on defense or special teams and all three landed at Group of Five schools with Allen and Brice reuniting with former Texas Director of High School Relations Chris Gilbert at North Texas and Turner-Gooden heading back to California to play for San Jose State.
Catalon’s lengthy injury history added another chapter in his lone season at Texas without the benefit of the playmaking ability or impactful physicality that defined his breakout redshirt freshman season in 2020. How much he has left to give to the game of football remains a major question mark and it’s glaring that Catalon declined to participate in the late stages of the Big 12 Championship game after seeing his role diminish upon returning from injury.
Crawford struggled to translate his elite track speed to cornerback and to safety over his four-year career with Texas, posting an abysmal 53.5 pass-coverage grade in 2023, according to PFF, by allowing 14 completions on 20 targets (70 percent) for 18.6 yards per reception. When Crawford was in the game, it was a virtual certainty that opponents would isolate him in coverage and successfully attack him. As a tackler, Crawford was graded at 30.7 with five missed tackles, a rate of 28.1 percent, some truly atrocious numbers. The Longhorns will miss his contributions on special teams, particularly his high-level ability as a gunner, but that skill alone isn’t enough to warrant a roster spot for another season given the other glaring deficiencies.
Thompson is the most significant loss after recording three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown and another that represented a game-changing moment in the season-defining road win over Alabama. Graded highly in coverage by PFF — first on the team, in fact — Thompson was still a boom-or-bust player with the ball in the air, allowing five touchdowns in 2023 when targeted in coverage. For perspective, no other Longhorns player allowed more than two touchdowns. At 191 pounds, Thompson isn’t a physical or especially competent tackler, either, with a 37.2 grade thanks to a team-high 15 missed tackles at a rate of 28.3 percent. And so while Thompson may well find a Power Five opportunity in the portal, the Texas staff seems intent on upgrading at his boundary safety position.
Forthcoming decision by Watts
With Barron intent to provide for his mother and projecting as a likely mid-round selection, the Pflugerville Connally product’s departure seems like a mere formality.
The decision by Watts, however, is one of the more intriguing storylines in the program among players who have left to declare their intentions for the 2024 season.
After transferring from Ohio State, Watts became a full-time starter for the first time in his career in 2021, totaling 51 tackles (33 solo), four tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, one quarterback hurry and three pass breakups in an impactful campaign as a physical boundary cornerback capable of setting the edge against the run and pressing opposing wide receivers while still teasing some further upside.
Unfortunately for Watts, hamstring and back injuries caused him to miss all or part of six games. Even before the injuries, however, Watts struggled in coverage against Wyoming, Baylor, and Kansas and the two games in which he saw significant snaps after returning. At 6’3 and 206 pounds with verified 4.59 40 speed, a 4.07 shuttle, and a 38-inch vertical in high school testing, Watts also has a unique physical and athletic profile for a cornerback — tall, lacking ideal top-end speed, but an explosive leaper capable of changing direction if not flipping his hips effectively in transition.
Looming over the entire college career of Watts are projections that safety might be a better fit for him. Looking towards next season, though, rising sophomore Malik Muhammad is a future star at the boundary position and needs to play while the safety position features the influx of Mukuba and the other talented 2024 signees. So remaining on the Forty Acres may simply not be in the best interest of Watts, no matter what position he ends up playing next year in college or in the NFL.
Mukuba and the versatile youth movement
After serving as a buzzword for Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian in discussing his team’s wins throughout the season, versatility was repurposed during Sarkisian’s Early Signing Day press conference as the preferred descriptor for the 2024 defensive back class, highlighted by Mukuba, consensus five-star safety Xavier Filsaime, and Kobe Black, the nation’s No. 41 prospect.
“Guys with a lot of versatility and I know we always want to label guys corners and safeties, but the way we play with five DBs the majority of the time, they have to be versatile players and the more versatile they can be, the more opportunities they can provide for themselves, whether it be corner, at the Star position, or at safety, so excited about that,” said Sarkisian.
The easy comparison is to the historic 2018 defensive back recruiting class for Texas and while the 2024 group features some definite star power in Filsaime, Black, and cornerback Wardell Mack, the other two high school signees aren’t as highly regarded as their counterparts in the rankings, although they do have attributes that could allow them to out-perform the expectations of the services.
More important than the rankings is how Sarkisian and his defensive assistants see the signees fit the Texas scheme.
“We’ve been talking for a couple of years now about wanting to be tighter in coverage and play a style of defense where when you’re tight and confident in coverage, you can be aggressive at the line of scrimmage to get to the quarterback. So, all these players that we recruited, all six of them have good size and good length, they’re really good tacklers, but they all have the ability to play coverage and play man coverage whether they end up being a safety, a star, or a corner.”
Because Catalon, Allen, Brice, and Turner-Gooden all entered the portal before the early signing period started, the pressure increased on the staff to find replacements like Mukuba from the portal, Filsaime as a late flip from Florida two days before Early Signing Day, and Black as a commitment who became official a week prior to the early signing period beginning.
“Then with some of the attrition that we got at the safety position and at corner through the portal, we really had to fill some of those spots and we were able to do that. I thought like I said Coach Joseph, Coach Gideon did a nice job identifying some of those guys and then finishing the job and getting them on board,” said Sarkisian.
Mukuba is the key veteran piece as a proven contributor at Clemson with the leadership ability to replace a starter like Thompson or Barron, depending on whether the Austin LBJ product ends up at safety or nickel, two positions he played regularly with the Tigers.
“We’re getting a player who for three years has been a frontline starter at Clemson and has been playing football at a high level for a very good program — I have a ton of respect for Coach [Dabo] Sweeney and the job they do at Clemson,” said Sarkisian.
“He’s been in big-time games, big-time moments. So as much as we’re losing some veteran players in that secondary, especially at that safety position, to add a guy who has that much experience and has played in big games and in big moments, I think will be a really good calming effect for us. He’s really versatile player, he’s played Star, he’s played safety. He’s covered in man, he’s played physical.”
A 6’1, 190-pounder from McKinney ranked as a consensus five-star prospect, the 32 player nationally, and the No. 23 safety, Filsaime was a key addition thanks to his physicality and coverage ability that he showed off during the Under Armour All-America game playing over the slot.
“Real playmaker. Man, this guy is born to be a DB. He’s got coverage ability. He’ll hit you. He’s got a really high football IQ, really good awareness about him. Coming off the injury from his junior year, I think he showed himself to really be healthy and had a heck of a year at McKinney,” said Sarkisian.
Another Under Armour All-American, Black was high-priority target for Texas throughout the cycle and has the frame to play safety at 6’2, 200 pounds, but the coverage ability to remain at cornerback and the ball skills honed by making plays on offense as a wide receiver for Waco Connally.
“Really versatile player. If you watch him now, the majority of his highlights this year were from the offensive side of the ball and what he did there, but a guy who really is a three-position player, can play corner, he can play Star if we need him to, if we were really in a pinch that guy could probably go play safety because he’s so versatile of a player. Great family, brother’s a heck of a player at Oklahoma State,” said Sarkisian.
Filsaime wasn’t the only flip from the Gators, though — cornerback Wardell Mack, a top-250 prospect nationally, joined the Longhorns class in mid-November.
“You go to the school, the principal wants to talk to you about the person that he is, the leader that is. Another really versatile player. I mean, this guy is tough, he is a football junkie, he loves the game,” said Sarkisian.
Even the consensus three-star defensive back signees are intriguing prospects.
Cornerback Santana Wilson is the son of former All-Pro safety Adrian Wilson and boasts one of the most impressive athletic profiles in the entire 2024 recruiting class with the No. 88 in the in-game athleticism score from Reel Analytics.
Top 100 IN-GAME ATHLETICISM™ (IGA) Scores | 81-90— Reel Analytics (@RAanalytics) January 5, 2024
We're excited to announce our inaugural Top 100 high school players list, determined through our revolutionary IN-GAME ATHLETICISM™ (IGA) Score, a measure of in-game athleticism derived from position-specific metrics… pic.twitter.com/HSxOg8QNJJ
“Santana Wilson, we all know his dad Adrian Wilson, great player in the NFL, now an NFL executive and player personnel, so this guy’s got the genetics to go with the length. The skill set to again play corner, could be a versatile player. His dad was a great safety, All-Pro safety in the NFL, but he’s got that high football IQ that we’re looking for and the versatility,” said Sarkisian.
Like Filsaime and Black, Jordon Johnson-Rubell is an Under Armour All-American out of IMG Academy in Florida who has a physical edge to his play at 5’10, 190 pounds that is reminiscent of Quandre Diggs.
“Another really versatile player, not the biggest guy in this group, but then you turn on the tape at IMG, one of the more physical players on that defense, but position flex, so much that he does and a real leader, this guy’s a natural leader and a great person as well, his family’s awesome,” said Sarkisian.
Combined with promising young returnees like Muhammad and rising sophomore safety Derek Williams, Texas has a chance to upgrade the safety position while increasing depth at cornerback and buttressing special teams with young, talented, hungry players.
The youth movement is here for the Longhorns in the secondary and the hope is that as these players mature, they’ll make more plays than they give up in defining moments like the College Football Playoffs.