Departures: Kenny Vaccaro
Additions: Chevoski Collins, Erik Huhn, Antwuan Davis
Projected depth chart:
Storyline: Remember when Tyrann Mathieu finally smoked himself right out of LSU, and everybody was lauding Texas as the best defensive backfield in the nation (raises hand)? And when UT fans were hungrily comparing and contrasting last year's DB crew with the 2005 unit that put five defensive backs into the NFL (raises hand)? Then the games started, and we were treated to a comical litany of errors involving a surprising inability to make a decent form tackle.
Now Kenny Vaccaro has departed after what can only be ironically characterized as both an overachieving and disappointing career. Overachieving because he wasn't one of the guys most recruiting "gurus" (raises hand) expected to be a star. Disappointing because...well...watching Texas football the past four-ish years has been the visual manifestation of Dick Vitale trying to sing "I Will Always Love You" by Whitney Houston.
The loss of Vaccaro stings for a multitude of reasons. The first is that, along with Alex Okafor, he was far and away one of our top two players for the entirety of the season. Another is that there are few players in Texas history that could be more counted on to show up ready for a knife fight at the kickoff of a big game. Vaccaro never looked outclassed, out-toughed, or out-efforted in his last two years as a Horn...because he wasn't. Those guys give their own teammates confidence and opposing coaches nightmares.
The less obvious negative is seeing him rocket up draft boards to occupy a nigh unanimous spot as the top safety. Sound moronic? Let me back up to explain better. There was a pervading notion during the season that Vaccaro was masking many of our less-apparent (yes, I promise you there were more) deficiencies on defense. That was so beaten to death that many started to think perhaps he was just having a down year. Now all the NFL scouts are watching film on him and saying the exact opposite-Kenny actually did a ton for our defense that even big-time football fans couldn't pinpoint. Long story short, none of that bodes well for our defense or secondary next year without him.
Which allows me to segue nicely into next year's secondary.
According to people who understand the intricacies of football a whole hell of a lot better than I could ever hope to, Diaz switched to the MOFC (Middle Of Field Closed) Cover 1 (one deep safety, man under) look that we saw so frequently last year in order to reconcile the disparity between his exotic zone blitz looks and Akina's mandate that we get to call ourselves "DBU" by playing aggressive man coverage.
Personally, I hate playing Cover 1 in the Big 12. It leaves you too vulnerable to the deep ball when your cornerbacks inevitably get burned by the best QB and WR play collegiate football has ever seen. It also gives you only one player as a last line of defense when a receiver shakes a tackle. Or a running back flies through your second level untouched because your linebackers don't understand rudimentary concepts of how to read keys on defense or how not to blitz blindly into an abyss of blockers or have no idea how to take on those blockers once they get there or don't really seem to have any actual LB coaching at all not naming any names. Texas.
Lord Carrington Byndom is working on his third year as a starter at CB, and you pretty much know what you're going to get from him by now. He's not going to show up every game, but if you stick him on the bigger receiver as opposed to the fast guy, he'll usually lock him down pretty well for the most part. I thought last season he vacillated between lackluster and all-conference with no real rhyme or reason for either outcome. And I think if he takes the job more seriously he could be First Team All-Big 12.
Fellow three-year starter Quandre Diggs will probably (read: hopefully) take over Vaccaro's safety/nickelback role, where his playmaking ability should really shine. He has the requisite compact frame to be an enforcer at safety, the ball skills to make picks and cover 1 on 1, and the supple hips to stay with slot receivers. Diggs reminds me of both the aforementioned Mathieu and the alluded-to Aaron Ross. Both were stud CBs who weren't all that outstanding at covering, but made a ton of game-changing plays with picks and forced/recovered fumbles, and in the ST game.
Much maligned safety Adrian Phillips was supposedly injured for most of last year. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt...if he comes out and plays like he was supposed to last season, before looking like he was utterly allergic to wrapping up or knocking his own players out of tackling position. He'll likely man the other safety spot.
Diggs' vacated CB spot will likely go to freaky, long athlete Duke Thomas. He didn't get much run last year but looked solid when he got on the field, and supposedly the coaches love the kid's potential. He needs to step up, because there's not much proven behind him at CB.
Battle to watch: Hopefully you'll see an absolute war at safety, because even though he improved toward the end of the season, Phillips simply wasn't close to good enough last year. Mykkele Thompson will likely start as the nickel safety when Diggs shifts down to the nickelback role, but he was equally as bad in the running game as Phillips was. I'm hearing they might move him to CB, which literally made me laugh out loud. Guy should have been moved to offense two years ago.
My favorite guy at the position right now is Josh Turner, who showed out well most of the time he was actually put on the field (especially compared to his compatriots). Unfortunately, he barely seemed like he could get on the field, despite being the only defensive player on the team to do anything at all against Baylor. He's a ballhawk, but needs to continue to get stronger.
Wild cards include freak track athlete Sheroid Evans, who also might move back to CB, and...freak track athlete Adrian Colbert, who definitely will never play CB. Evans has battled nagging injuries for his entire tenure at UT and should genuinely be able to play both DB spots if he can stay healthy. Colbert is a hammer with a gigantic frame and inhuman closing speed.
Also, don't discount the younger Vaccaro brother, Kevin. He's got a similar body type to his brother, but he's three inches shorter. If he can bring the same disposition and fire as his older sibling, he should be able to find his way into the rotation early.
The final word: So what does it all mean? Well, I don't think many UT fans will be harboring delusions of grandeur for any position on defense this year after expecting a Bama/LSU-type unit from last year's group. But I also don't think it's unreasonable to expect all-conference type seasons from both Byndom and Diggs, a bounce-back year to respectability from Phillips, and the rest of Duane Akina's group to grow into competent contributors that make the occasional play, reliably wrap up ball carriers in reasonably standard situations, and aren't jumping around as the ball gets snapped while trying to figure out where they're supposed to be and what defense we have called.