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Is Mykkele Thompson The Answer At Safety?

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With Adrian Phillips struggling mightily in coverage and as a tackler, the Longhorns need a young defensive back to emerge.

Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

On a defense that features a number of disappointing facets, no single player has been more disappointing than junior defensive back Adrian Phillips, who has been a poster child for the missed tackle problems plaguing the unit after entering the season as one of PB's Guys and the subject of a fawning piece by yours truly.

So, yeah, about all that...

In coverage last week against West Virginia, he wasn't much better in that regard than he has been tackling, failing to effectively double cover Stedman Bailey and giving up several touchdowns as a result when he was supposed to be providing help to the cornerback playing man defense.

On the depth chart for the game, Phillips was listed as the co-starter with sophomores Mykkele Thompson and Josh Turner. After making the move from cornerback, Turner has had some problems matching up physically with opponents he has to tackle, while Thompson turned in the best performance of his young career against West Virginia.

As a result, he's now listed as the starter ahead of Phillips.

Head coach Mack Brown talked about the changes on Monday regarding the now-displaced junior:

He and [sophomore CB] Josh [Turner] are still going to play. But we've said all along we're going to play the guy that plays the best in the ballgame. And Mykkele made more plays in the ballgame this week, and had a chance to make a couple more. Mykkele was more physical than he's been. So we felt like that across the board that's a move that we need to make.

Consider the message sent. Whether it was received is another issue.

Some elements of Thompson's play were promising, but he still has a long way to go before becoming a pure defender after a great deal of speculation about whether he can or should stick on the defensive side of the ball, with a sizable contingent of fans wanting the ball in his hands as an offensive player. There was even some talk about him playing Wildcat, though the coaches shot that down.

The former high school quarterback impressed Akina enough to earn an offer from his area recruiter and current position coach after seeing his skillset:

He is coming along. When we recruited him, he was recruited mainly as an athlete. I really liked some of the things I saw with him running and jumping athletically.

Thompson was certainly electric with the ball in his hands as a prep star, gaining nearly 5,000 yards of total offense, including over 3,600 yards rushing, finding the endzone 48 times with the ball in his hands. So while freshman running back Johnathan Gray may scoff at those numbers, Thompson was highly productive during his time at John Paul Stevens High School.

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz used the word "exciting" a lot on Monday, probably too much for the taste of some Texas fans. Thompson was one of the recipients of praise as Diaz talked about the transition from a high school quarterback to the safety position:

Mykkele was exciting. He is a guy that made his living carrying the football, so from the time he was first put on shoulder pads, he was taught to avoid people. [Defensive backs coach] Duane Akina has a lot of good qualities as a coach, but one of the things he does is take guys like that and sort of harden them up to become physical backs because we really try to pride ourselves on being a physical secondary.

The list of players who experienced a similar metamorphosis under the tutelage of Akina includes Michael Huff and Aaron Ross. Not bad company, and there's no question that the physical skills of Thompson match up reasonably well with those former Texas stars.

Akina agreed:

He is now starting to see the game quicker and become more confident. The reps are starting to matter and he is becoming a little more physical. Anytime you recruit an offensive player that is used to avoiding contact, one of the first things you have to get them used to is running through contact. Sometimes that takes longer than others, but he is really starting to settle in in that area.

Earlier on Monday, Brown expressed a similar sentiment regarding Thompson's improvement:

Malcom Brown and [sophomore DB] Mykkele Thompson made a lot of progress the another night. Mykkele had his hand on a couple balls that we'd have liked to have intercepted that might have been a game changer, but he's playing better over the last couple of weeks.

One ball really should have been intercepted in the endzone, with the other being a more difficult play. The drops were huge in the context of the game, but in the context of Thompson's career and where he is developmentally after playing only sparingly last season as a freshman, it's fair to give him some latitude at this point.

The young defensive backs in 2008 had similar problems before turning the corner in 2009 and collecting 25, tops in the country.

Of course, Thompson's ultimate upside will depend on his ability not just to put himself in position to make plays, but to actually make them.

One particular play from the West Virginia game stood out to Diaz in a positive way:

One of the plays to me that was most exciting about Mykkele, I think they threw a screen pass and it was on our sideline, an offensive lineman came to block him, and [DE] Reggie Wilson was pursuing the ball from inside out, and you'll see a lot of defensive backs, what their natural instinct will do is to retreat versus the offensive lineman. What that does is for Reggie is going to make the tackle, somebody just sticks their nose in it, and Mykkele went there and knocked into the offensive lineman. And that was a big play in our room.

As part of becoming a more physical player, it was a big step forward for Thompson, who had 10 tackles, five of which were made in the open field, where Phillips has struggled so notably. Perhaps his play was a big reason why the Longhorns only missed seven tackles on the evening, with only one coming from Thompson.

Diaz continued his point about the San Antonio product:

So during that, being a sure tackler, it was a game where communication was secondary with all the crowd noise, which was unbelievable, was going to be paramount and we were always on point with what we were doing with the multiple different coverages we were playing. There was a lot of things to be excited about that he can take forward into this next game.

Akina was happy with his tackling during the game, as well. For the Longhorns right now, a player making 80% of their open-field tackles in a given contest is nearly worthy of a team MVP award. At least a plaque or something. A gold star at minimum. Even college kids like gold stars.

If Phillips can't get things together, Thompson will have to be a big piece of the secondary moving forward as Turner struggles with his own growing pains, mostly a an outgrowth of his need for growth in the weight room.

Now, can he start finishing some of those plays with the type of interceptions that change games?

Right now, Texas fans would probably settle for an effective tackler and fewer coverage busts, as Thompson has been notably late providing help on several touchdown passes. Baby steps.